Design for neurodiversity

by Sophie Berrill
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Design for neurodiversity.

With 15 to 20 percent of the population estimated to be living with neurodiversity, a new frontier for building accessibility is gaining momentum.  

The standards and legislation for the built environment, although imperfect, are generally designed to support access for people with physical disabilities – whether they have mobility, vision or hearing impairments. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) protects people with disability in Australia from discrimination, which flows into the National Construction Code (NCC) and regulates equitable access where safe and where it doesn’t cause ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to provide it.

Designing with access for neurodiversity in mind is not addressed in these guidelines, but the practice is emerging despite that.

“Design for neurodiversity is definitely a growing area as people are more aware of people who have autism or other forms of neurodiversity, such as Alzheimer’s, ADHD, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome or post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Ellen Naismith, an access consultant at Architecture and Access.

“COVID-19 has also definitely raised the community’s understanding that some people do struggle in busy, crowded or noisy environments.”

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, and is regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population. It involves difficulties with sensory processing, whether that’s visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory (smell and taste) or vestibular (movement or sense of body in space). People with neurodiversity can experience hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to their environment, or a combination of both.

As the mother of children with Autism and ADHD, Naismith has experienced how the sensory design of the environment can act as a barrier to participation, social interaction and productivity. She brings this lived experience to her job, reviewing plans for buildings and events, and supporting design teams to achieve minimum compliance requirements – and exceed them where possible.

“Neurodiversity is not recognised under the NCC/Building Code of Australia,” she says.

“If the DDA was updated to include neurodiversity in the list of disabilities, the requirement to meet the needs of people with neurodiversity would be a legislative requirement, which would then flow through to the Australian standards.”

But a lot of organisations are “not waiting” for the DDA to catch up, says Naismith. They’re forging ahead and prioritising sensory elements in their interior design.

What does design for neurodiversity look like?

As hinted by the name, there is no one universal design for neurodiversity. Different people have different needs. When managing spaces, Naismith says it’s important to understand who the user group is.

“There are no actual standards for universal design. It’s really just principles on which we aim to work to achieve access and inclusion for the widest range of users possible,” she says.

Space design

Some people living with neurodiversity prefer open-planned areas, as this enables an overview of the space, whereas others find seeing everything at once overwhelming.

“People on the autism spectrum quite often struggle because they cannot filter,” says Naismith.

“They experience all sensory inputs at the same level. So it makes it very difficult for them to focus on the task at hand when there are so many different things going on around them.”

Providing a variety of space design features can help cater to different preferences. These can include simple, functional areas that are zoned according to different levels of sensory input. Loud or group meeting areas should be clearly defined, while quiet rooms, pods or divider walls should ideally be co-located with areas of high sensory input to allow users to quickly isolate, feel calm, or focus on what they’re doing.

Connecting spaces in between enable users to self-regulate and prepare for a change in sensory environment.

Design for neurodiversity

Quiet rooms, pods or divider walls should ideally be co-located with areas of high sensory input.

Wayfinding

An effective wayfinding system with clear, consistent signage throughout will assist people to navigate autonomously.

“A lot of people with neurodiversity, especially people on the autism spectrum, struggle with transitioning from one area to another, or not knowing what’s going to come,” says Naismith.

For people with social anxiety or a need for structure and organisation, signage and maps can help anticipatory planning and reduce anxiety. Evident pathways can provide colour-coded connecting spaces, with the use of landmarks helpful for navigation.

Exit sign

An effective wayfinding system with clear, consistent signage throughout will assist people to navigate autonomously.

Colours and patterns

Colour preference is personal, so what works for one person may cause stress for another.

Generally speaking, bold colours present a challenge, as can highly patterned and contrasting floor and wall finishes. In their place, Naismith encourages soft, natural colours and simple, non-reflective materials. Communal spaces should similarly be clean and clutter-free.

However, consultation with the user group/s is essential to arrive at the best design for that setting.

Natural colours

While colour preference is personal, Naismith recommends soft, natural colours and simple, non-reflective materials.

Lighting

Many people with neurodiversity have heightened sensitivity to fluorescent lighting due to the strobing visual and buzzing noise they emit. Therefore, fluorescent lights and lights that flash, strobe or cycle are best avoided. The option of low-lit rooms or dimmer switches can also help to meet individual needs.

Fluorescent lighting

Fluorescent lighting can present a challenge for people with neurodiversity.

Acoustics

Background noise is a major factor in sensory overload and distress. Some recommended noise control measures include soft furnishings, wood or other construction materials, acoustic panels, green walls and roofs.

Background noise is a major factor in sensory overload and distress.

Smell 

Olfaction is often overlooked, but strong scents can be highly challenging for people with neurodiversity. Cooking odours, toilets, chemicals, smoking, perfumes and bathroom deodorisers can have a profoundly negative effect.

Ventilation and exhaust fans help to minimise environmental smells, and the location of cafes and kitchenettes should also be considered in relation to work and study spaces.

Room scents and deodorisers can have a profoundly negative effect.

What can FMs do?

With their eyes on the ground, FMs are in a great position to look out for ways to improve access.

“I always ask to speak to one of the facility managers just to understand how that space operates in reality,” says Naismith.

“Because you can have all the best intentions in the world, but if on the ground it’s not feasible, then it’s not going to achieve its aim.”

With neurodiversity as prevalent as it is, we’re not talking about a fringe group. Making room for as many needs as possible is part and parcel of getting people back to the office, or back maximising any other public place.

This article originally appeared in the ‘People Issue’ of the Facility Management digital magazine. Grab your free copy here. Existing subscribers can read the magazine here.

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