Design for Neurodiversity
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to diversity in the human brain and cognition, for instance in sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. As a result, neurodiverse people have different struggles and unique strengths.
What are examples of neurodiversity?
ADHA, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia and Tourette’s syndrome are all examples of neurodiverse conditions. These can be used as diagnostic labels used to explain the diverse ways of thinking, leaning, processing and behaving.
How does neurodiversity work?
Neural pathways are the links between neurons. They wire the brain so that it can control different body functions and thinking processes. These neural pathways are like grooves in that create road maps in our brain, affecting how we think, feel and act.
Of the global population, 10% are dyslexic, 6% are dyspraxic, 5% have ADHD and 1-2% are autistic. This means approximately 20% of the population fall into the neurodivergent category.
Why is this important?
Neurodivergent people can be influenced by their surroundings differently to how neurotypical people might be. They can be more sensitive to things like light, noise and scent and have trouble navigating or distinguishing different places from one another.
Why should we accommodate neurodivergent people in design?
Through their alternate way of thinking, neurodivergent people can offer solutions to problems that neurotypical people cannot see. They often tend to be highly creative individuals, with unique neural pathways that can make unlikely links between different subject matter. This can be the basis for many forms of innovation.
Research also suggests that some neurological conditions will cause individuals to have a stronger predisposition to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to neurotypicals. With loss of productivity due to depression and anxiety estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion USD, it’s important that these conditions are accommodated for and minimised through inclusive practices and design.
Neurodiversity at work
Acoustical conditions can provide a source of stress for neurodiverse individuals – this includes environments that are too quiet as well as those that are too noisy. Intermittent, unpredictable noise tends to be more distracting than general background noise.
To reduce distractions, spaces should be designed to provide various options for different ways of working, including areas for focus, concentration and even tech-free zones.
Neurodivergent individuals can react to sensory cues differently – for some, it’s the lack of stimulation whilst others can be overwhelmed by it. These sensory cues include all of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. For example, invasive cooking smells can be particularly distracting in an office environment. Things like colour choice and textures can impact our stimulation too.
Spaces should be designed with thoughtful implementation of colour, texture, materials and patterns to provoke different levels of sensory stimulation as required by the user.
Spaces that appear too similar or have no defining features can be confusing for neurodiverse people to navigate. A lack of clear boundaries in a space can be overwhelming and illogical layouts can add to the confusion.
Repetition, predictability and clear boundaries can help a neurodivergent person to feel safe and in control. Spaces should be designed with intuitive wayfinding elements - clear lines of sight and viewpoints help us to orient a space. Strategic use of colour, art, signage can also act as memorable landmarks to aid orientation.
Methods for inclusive design
Emphasising architectural or graphic focal points can aid with wayfinding.
Repetition of common elements can provide a reassuring sense of order.
Ensure the interior elements are designed in accordance with human scale to create balance.
Symmetry or asymmetry can create visual stability.
Appropriate lighting – bright lights can intensify feelings (positive and negative) whilst dimmer lights can help us to make more rational decisions.
Changing lighting conditions (colour and intensity) throughout the day to align with the users circadian system can reduce experienced stress levels.
Use of pattern can help users understand and navigate their environment.
The introduction of natural elements in an interior can be calming – organic materials and biophilia connect us to nature and have shown to reduce stress levels.
Use of spatial design strategies to create different spaces for different tasks, thinking about open/enclosed spaces, high/low traffic areas, private/public spaces.
Appropriate use of colour to evoke the desired emotional and physical reaction of the user. Certain colours have been associated with increased blood pressure, metabolism and eyestrain. Colour can also have different symbolic meaning in different cultures.
Yellow – Yellow is good for creative thinking, gives us warmth and energy. It can relieve depression, a healing colour and helps to treat unresolved feelings.
Orange – Orange is used to alleviate fatigue, treat depression, helps to assimilate new ideas, and removes repression and inhibitions. It can increase IQ and can make us feel enthusiastic and increase our energy levels if not overdone.
Pink and Lavender – Both colours can be very soothing. They can also be emasculating and reduce aggression.
Red – Can be seen as a warning colour. Red is energising, stimulating and increases brain wave activity. If in view for too long, it can make us feel more aggressive.
Green – Green is very calming, relieves stress and creates a tranquil environment.
Blue – Calming and can help with analytical thinking and is a colour of authority. However, if overpowered it can make people feel “blue”, sad, or depressed.
Violet – Creates a peaceful environment and is used to treat insomnia & compulsive behaviour.
Brown – Neutral colour with a sense of strength and reliability. It also reminds us of nature and make us feel more relaxed.
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