A Space for Everyone: How to Design for Neurodiversity

The concept of “neurodiversity” is relatively new, but has been steadily growing in popularity over the last decade. First coined in 1998, the term refers to the wide variability of neuro-cognitive abilities of the human brain and the understanding that there is no one “right” way of thinking or learning. Brains, like humans, operate on a massive spectrum—from neurotypical to neurodivergent.

Since then, a movement has emerged that aims to eradicate the stigma associated with certain neurodivergent conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome and create space for those with neuro-variations—especially within workplaces and schools. With most people spending huge chunks of their lives in a classroom or office, it only makes sense that these spaces be inclusive for individuals of all cognitive abilities. And while great strides have been made in designing schools and workplaces with neurodiversity in mind, we still have a long way to go until our world is fully inclusive and accessible to people across the neurodiversity spectrum.

Intentional design choices can go a long way in making spaces welcoming and accessible for the full spectrum of the neurodiverse population. Let’s dive in.

Varied Spaces for Varied Brains

One of the best ways to accommodate neurodiversity? Offering a variety of thoughtfully arranged spaces that allow students or employees to work and interact with the environment in a way that fits their sensory comfort level. For a workplace, that might mean incorporating a few quiet spaces for focused solo work and dedicated settings for high-stimulation activities like collaboration and socialization.

In a classroom, these diverse spaces might include different seating or workstation options for students to choose from, as well as areas where learners can recharge quietly or redirect sensory overload with movement. At SHP, we’ve incorporated dedicated sensory spaces within schools; these settings serve as safe places that allow for both passive and active interaction and give students the opportunity to self-regulate their behavior.

Variations in how these spaces are arranged should also be considered. After all, some people might prefer the openness of a huddle room surrounded by glass, while others might perform best in a space with solid walls and a door that ensures privacy. Increasing the number of options within your workplace or school means that your neurodiverse staff and students are more likely to find a space that works for them.

Rethink Lighting and Noise

For individuals with neuro-variations like autism or ADHD, sensory overload can be distracting at best and debilitating at worst. Overly bright or flickering lights, vivid colors, loud or persistent noises, or even scratchy fabrics on furniture can overwhelm the senses of some neurodivergent folks, directly affecting their ability to focus.

Fortunately, there are some simple ways to mitigate sensory overload in the office or classroom. If you haven’t already incorporated natural light into your environment, consider ditching some of the intense fluorescent lights for softer, more natural light sources like windows, skylights or sun-mimicking lamps. Limiting distracting noises like printers and ringing phones (or adding soundproofing materials to private spaces) can also go a long way in minimizing sensory overload.  And while you’re building varied spaces for different ways of working or learning, consider similarly switching up the colors and textures in these settings—including neutral, calming tones and un-upholstered furniture for those with tactile sensitivities.

Clear the Path with Wayfinding

Confusing or repetitive layouts within offices and schools can make navigation a challenge for anyone, but this is especially true for people with neuro-variations like dyslexia or autism—and the disorientation that comes with this challenge can be overwhelming. That’s where wayfinding and navigation elements can make a huge difference for those individuals.

Even if your office isn’t a monotonous maze of cubicles, you can integrate intuitive wayfinding elements like obvious signage, strategically placed visual landmarks and clear lines of sight. These simple additions can enable people across the neurodiversity spectrum to create vivid mental maps and orient themselves within the environment, allowing them to navigate the space with ease.

Ultimately, inclusive environments that acknowledge the diverse human experience are beneficial to everyone. After all, designing a space with neurodiversity in mind means that every member of your team or class will have access to a space where they feel comfortable and empowered to do their best work.