Debating the foundations of meaningful interior design would no doubt elicit familiar ideas about how the practice exists to make spaces functional, safe, and beautiful by means of color, texture, furnishings, lighting, art, and so forth. The goals, as designers often posit, is to create rooms that tell stories and mirror the places we’ve been before, but also leave an impression of their own. But outfitting a room in the the latest hot hue of the year or with an obsessively popular It couch doesn’t guarantee it will be successful in its functionality. That’s particularly true for users who experience the world through the lens of neurodiversity—what designer and researcher Bryony Roberts describes as “the variety of human brains, [reflecting] the neurological diversity of human populations.”
While the collective focus on design has been based on decorative execution for a long time, and that isn’t likely to change (it’s what drives trends, industry bestsellers, and algorithms, after all), it begs a question: Isn’t it time we widen our approach to how a space can provide support and nourishment to those genetically wired to experience their environments differently?
Awareness of this more inclusive tack is growing, according to Jennifer Carpenter, a principal of Verona Carpenter Architects in New York City and a mom to a child with autism. “Now more than ever there is growing acknowledgment of neurodiversity as a fact of the world we’re living in,” she says. “The need has always been there, but we're having that conversation now in a way we didn’t before.”
For many experts specializing in this nascent field, the recent embrace of designing for the neurodivergent feels overdue. But it does exist and is becoming a verified and tangible discipline picking up notice in the realms of architecture, interior design, and education. According to Roberts, the pandemic has only exacerbated challenges for neurodivergent people by creating barriers to accessing care and increasing isolation.
At its most rudimentary, designing with neurodiversity in mind means evaluating what is being put into a room and how it affects the body as a whole. That includes anything and everything that engages the senses, from texture, sound, layout, and quality and color of light to the shape and function of the furniture.
Widening the lens does more than just invite attention to an underserved community; it also spotlights the ways environments can encourage better living, learning, and working. What’s more, it puts emphasis on how people actually experience a place, promoting fresh discourse in which atypical minds and bodies can revel in the possibilities of something profound—improved spaces for nonconformist and authentic living.
While by no means a comprehensive list, AD PRO has compiled a few considerations and best practices designers should factor in when creating more inclusive spaces, whether it’s their own workplace or a client’s home.
Plan for different postures
Carpenter and her coprincipal Irina Verona say much of the credit for movement towards more supportive spaces can be traced to education, which has leaned into exploring how design can better support children learning on their own terms. “Everyone has sensitivities of one or another, or preferences, and we provide choices or agency to find what works for them,” says Carpenter. One example, Verona adds, is noticing that kids like to lie down and read or do homework on their stomachs. So whether at home or school, “it’s ok to study on the floor, so let’s add a good rug and pillows so they can learn.”
Weigh movement and balance
Movement within a space can be vital too, says Carpenter. “Is there a place where people can pace and work at the same time? We’re creating zones where they can do that.” The right furniture can help as well, including sit-to-stand desks or even a basic rocking chair. Other general considerations include acoustics and texture. “Texture is really underappreciated. With modulating sensory input (the brain's ability to regulate its own activity), it’s important to have surfaces that can be touched,” says Carpenter. This goes for wood, tile, or even contoured-felt panels on the walls for sensory-seeking hands to touch.