Designing for Neurodiversity
Approximately 15-20% of the UK population is neurodivergent, with the actual figure likely being higher due to undiagnosed individuals. Neurodiversity encompasses the diverse ways our brains function, including conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. Recognizing these cognitive differences is crucial in design. Educational interiors should be inclusive, allowing neurodiverse students to leverage their unique viewpoints without feeling the need to adapt. Instead, spaces should adjust to fit everyone's needs. Marti Lee, Senior Designer at AW Spaces, emphasizes, “Neurodiversity is a strength. Designing with it in mind celebrates and supports individuality."
Incorporate Sensory Design Elements
For neurodiverse students, the sensory experience of the workplace can greatly impact their ability to focus, process information, and thrive in their roles.
Marti explains, "A education space that addresses sensory needs can foster a culture of understanding and acceptance, leading to greater creativity, innovation, and collaboration among all students."
Everyone experiences sensorial stimulation at points, but for neurodiverse people, sensory overload can become an overwhelming and challenging experience to navigate. Traditional classroom space tends to be quite unfriendly regarding sensory overload. The smells of the kitchen, fluorescent overhead lighting, and open-plan spaces where noise travels easily can all contribute to a negative sensory experience.
What is Sensory Design?
Design elements that cater to sensory experiences—visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile—are vital for neurodivergent-friendly classrooms. As Marti emphasizes, "Classroom design can significantly influence neurodiverse students' performance. Prioritizing sensory needs is crucial."
Incorporating natural light and neutral colors fosters calmness and improves focus, especially for those with sensory processing challenges. Opt for adjustable LED lighting in artificially lit rooms for less harsh illumination. Locate kitchens and strong-smelling areas, like bins, away from workspaces. Minimize noise with acoustic baffling, carpets, and strategic plant placement, which also enhances air quality.
Engage neurodiverse students in the design process, seeking their feedback to ensure their needs are met. By doing so, classroom spaces can be truly inclusive and tailored to support all students effectively.
Design Clear Wayfinding
For neurodivergent individuals, navigating environments can be daunting, especially when encountering overstimulating areas. To make schools more accessible, Marti suggests clear lines of sight in both architectural and interior designs, creating a more organized space for students.
She advises offering multiple paths to school areas, allowing for quieter route choices for those who prefer them. Clear, easy-to-read signage, possibly using color codes or symbols, can simplify wayfinding. This clarity ensures that students can find their way easily, enhancing their overall experience and performance. Essentially, modern design should focus on simplicity, with smooth shapes and clear zones, facilitating effective wayfinding for all.
Define Work Zones
Inclusive educational spaces must cater to the broad and varied neurodivergent spectrum. Some students thrive in lively, collaborative settings, while others might be hypersensitive to noise and activity. To truly be inclusive, designs should prioritize individual needs over task-oriented spaces.
Marti suggests that understanding these diverse needs involves thorough research and user testing, including consultations with experts like occupational therapists, psychologists, and educators. Observing how individuals interact with current spaces can provide valuable insights.
After this groundwork, design your educational spaces with varied zones for different working methods. Furniture layouts can subtly suggest a space's purpose. Even in existing classrooms, introducing design elements can create new, more conducive areas for students to excel.
For neurodivergent individuals with hypersensitivity, overstimulating environments can hinder productivity. It's essential to set up dedicated quiet zones in classrooms, ensuring music is headphone-only, calls are taken outside, and chatter is minimal. Reflect this low-stimulation theme in the space's design by opting for a neutral palette, defined shapes, and smooth textures. Features like adjustable lighting, large windows for natural light, and biophilic elements can enhance calmness and focus. However, this doesn't equate to a bland space—there are myriad creative ways to incorporate calming hues and simple textures.
Inspiring surroundings cultivate an inspiring culture. Create playful and joyful spaces that reflect the diversity of your team; as Marti recommends, "by designing for neurodiversity, we can create spaces that are not only more accessible but more engaging and stimulating for everyone." Collaboration is an essential tool in any classroom. Still, by providing enriching and stimulating spaces for extraversion, those neurodiverse students who require buzz and social environments will need these spaces to achieve their best work.
Both neurodiverse and neurotypical people need a break from their screens now and then. Still, neurodiverse students may need more regular intervals to immerse themselves into sanctuaries where they can recharge. Provide spaces for your students that have absolutely nothing to do with work or being productive. These can be darkened rooms with comfy seating, soft areas bathed in natural light, or in-house greenhouses filled with nature and plant life. “Recharge and sanctuary spaces are not only beneficial to neurodiverse students but also to other students.” Marti explains, “Providing a place to rest, recharge and reset can enhance productivity, encourage creativity, and reduce burnout across the board.”