Is Designing for Neurodiversity a Part of Your Practice Yet Heres Why It Should Be
Lizzie Soufleris
Need to Know

Is Designing for Neurodiversity a Part of Your Practice Yet? Here’s Why It Should Be

Experts discuss why the field is finally getting its due and how you can embrace it in your own work

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.”

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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.

Verona and Carpenter stress that designers need to look beyond the five senses and also consider proprioception, or body sense, as well as vestibular sense, the sense of balance related to the inner ear. This means replacing furniture featuring sharp edges with more rounded geometries, making sure stairs are easy to navigate, and that there are very obvious visible transitions between floor levels and surfaces. “It means going beyond what the code requires you to do,” says Carpenter. 

Consider sensory load

“When designing for neurodiversity, it is important to consider sensory loads,” says Diane Rogers, a senior project architect with IA Interior Architects in San Francisco. And while that’s as true of a home as it is at a workplace, it doesn’t mean that quiet spaces are a cure-all. “It has often been assumed, especially pre-COVID, that an office is only subjected to noise and distraction, lacking spaces to recharge with rest and quietness. Another common assumption is that neurodiverse individuals only desire calming spaces, when in fact some need more stimulation to soothe their nervous system, depending on their particular sensitivities.”

And for workplaces, more than ever, it’s important to provide sensory experiences that have not previously been considered “usual” for a business setting, says Rogers. “Aromatherapy, movement rooms, and sensory environments where light and sound can be dialed in to suit one’s individual needs are all examples of spaces that provide relief for neurodiverse employees.”

One element to consider is lighting, says Liza Curtiss, coprincipal of Brooklyn-based interior design studio Le Whit. “Many neurodiverse people experience high sensitivity to light, particularly individuals with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and ADHD. Photosensitivity can be considered in the quality of light selected throughout a space. Utilizing lower, indirect light, and avoiding any LED or fluorescent light bulbs/strips would be effective in creating a passive, non-stimulating space. Window coverings are another opportunity for light control, or even solar control windows and window film applications.”

Susan Taylor of Davis Taylor Design in Los Angeles had one client whose sensitivity to fabric textures would easily drive him to extreme distraction. Any fabrics and rugs required a soft feel for touching and walking on barefoot, and they had to stand up to the daily wear of small children. The solution was incorporating a mix of silk and cotton velvets from Rogers & Goffigon LTD and soft cotton fabrics, which Taylor had reinforced to make them stronger. For the rugs, Taylor selected antique silk Khotans from Doris Leslie Blau and cotton dhurries from ABC Carpet & Home.

Look to nature

Biophilia expert and author Jennifer Walsh of New York City says tenets of biophilic design also provide important sensory cues that nourish our engagement with the environments in which we spend time. Looking at fractals, a complex and boundless pattern across different scales (think tree branches, ferns, ice crystals, succulents, and pinecones) for example, is extremely powerful, as are sounds of nature, like gently flowing water and birdsong, as well as connection to natural sunlight. One simple way to bring more of the outside in: “Homes and spaces that utilize natural local colors and textures play a very big part of a sense of calm as well,” says Walsh. 

 Curtiss points out that families spending more time together than ever before puts stress on any household, but particularly neurodiverse ones. “An invaluable way to set up a family for success is to also address how their physical surroundings contribute to their ability to self-regulate and self-soothe.”

Take notes from neuroaesthetics

Neuroaesthetics, a subdiscipline of cognitive neuroscience, is advancing more intuitive design applications for better living. “We strongly believe that aesthetics embodies our deepest values and has a profound impact on human relations, health, and wellbeing,” says Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology, psychology, and architecture and director at the Penn Center for Neuroesthetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

According to a recent report from the Penn Center, aesthetic responses to the built and natural environment are organized along three dimensions: fascination (is the space interesting?), coherence (is the space ordered?), and homeyness (does the space feel personal and cozy?). “These are things you should incorporate into your thinking about design,” says Chatterjee, who explains that all details in a room should be studied for how they impact humans. The report explains that people differ in their aesthetic responses to the built environment; uncovering the reasons for this variability informs the design of environments for people inhabiting these spaces. Even public bathrooms deserve scrutiny, says Dr. Chatterjee: “When you go into public bathrooms—and this can be in the nicest hotels—visually, the bathrooms can look really nice, but you go to dry your hands and the air blowers are horrific, it makes you want to run out of there.” 

Include more voices in the design process

Particularly urgent, says Roberts, is creating inclusive processes of design, which the designer explores through her practice as well as through WIP Collaborative, a feminist cooperative of independent professionals working together on projects that engage community and the public realm. Projects, says Roberts, often grow from conversations with self-advocates and their families about what is missing in public spaces. “People often speak about the need for more variety and choice in sensory conditions. It’s helpful to have a range of environments so that people can choose the degree of sensory stimulation and social interaction that works best for them.”

To this end, Roberts says that when creating spaces that support neurodiversity, it’s crucial to elevate the voices of self-advocates with disabilities and make sure that their perspectives inform the design process. “The fields of the built environment need to shift from ‘designing for’ to ‘designing with’ people with disabilities. Therefore it’s important that architects focus on the process as much as the outcome. As disability-justice advocates say, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”