Six design considerations for including neurodiversity – and much more!

In the hunt for the most talented, innovative, productive and competent employees, people within the so-called neurodiversity range have become increasingly interesting for companies. But for them to thrive and function, the workplace must be adapted to meet their needs – and it will benefit everyone.

In the late 1990s, the Australian autistic sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity. It was quickly picked up within autistic communities. But it is not until recent years it has become more widespread.

According to Kay Sargent, Director of Workplace at the global architect and design firm HOK, the interest in neurodiversity and how to adapt workplaces to be more inclusive has become a big topic for major companies. The reason is the ongoing “war for talent” as Kay Sargent puts it. “And” she adds, “because it is the right thing to do.”

15-20% are neurodiverse

But let’s take it from the beginning. The term neurodiversity is based on the fact that we are all different. We all interact and respond differently to the world around us, although most of us keep within a certain range and are hence referred to as neurotypical. But as much as 15-20% of people extend beyond that range and process information and sensory stimulation differently. These individuals are covered by the term neurodiversity.

It should be said that the term refers to the idea that there is no “normal” kind of brain or neurocognitive functioning, it is all about normal variations. That being said, neurodiversity is most often used to include neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome among others.

It all began with a client’s request

“Everybody is wired a little bit different. People that are neurodiverse fall outside what is the typical range of how people respond to stimulation and how they process information. They tend to either be hypo-or hypersensitive to their surroundings,” Kay Sargent says.

Kay Sargent has dug deep into the neurodiversity field and how to adapt workplaces in a way that enables and make neurodiverse individuals thrive. It all began with a client’s request five years ago.

“We were finishing up a design review when our client asked me how to design a space for people with ADHD. I had some insights, but it wasn’t a good enough answer. I was so intrigued by that. I started to do some research and found almost nothing existing related to designing workplaces to be more welcoming for neurodiverse individuals.”

Since then, HOK has published five reports on the topic and recently just launched their next round of research.

“I think we have a responsibility and a moral obligation as designers to do this. It simply is the right thing to do. One of seven individuals are neurodiverse and far more are impacted by it. The American with Disabilities Act and the UK Equality Act both consider neurodiversity a disability, but we prefer to think of it as a superpower or a benefit.”

You don’t want to miss these talents

Half the adults that are neurodiverse don’t even know it, because it has been undiagnosed for a long time, Kay Sargent stresses.

“The likelihood that you have individuals in your office that are neurodiverse is incredibly high – and that might be the reason some people are having challenges or difficulties in the workplace, because they are neurodiverse.”

But adapting workplaces to neurodiversity is not only a moral obligation, Kay Sargent underlines.

“There is a war for talent, so it is absolutely critical that all people feel welcome, included and comfortable in the workspace. And it matters because neurodiverse people have such amazing talents. People that are neurodiverse tend to think outside the box, can be big picture thinkers and often have an increased aptitude for innovation. They also tend to have a super focus.”

Give people options, choice and control

It might seem an impossible task to adapt a workplace to match all different needs of neurodiverse people. But when talking to Kay Sargent, it soon becomes clear that the core in this is about giving people options, choices and control. In other words, completely in line with the advice from most workplace consultants and experts today.

“For a long time, we have built workplaces from a one-size-fits-all thinking, where all are treated as equals. But we are not. We process information differently, even neurotypicals. If we treat everybody the same, then it becomes a one-size-misfits-all scenario. If we can create environments where there are options, choices and control, everyone can find the spaces that fits both their work style and their processing preferences for sensory stimulation levels,” Kay says and points out:

“When our basic needs are met – safety and comfort – then we can focus our energy on thinking, connecting, creating and innovating.”

Kay Sargent’s thesis is that if we design for neurodiversity, people that are neurotypical will benefit as well. “If you design for the extreme, you benefit the mean.”

How does sound affect people with neurodiversity?

“Not all spaces should have the same acoustic level across it. You should offer quieter zones that support concentrative, focus work, zones with general background hum where you can have conversations without disturbing your neighbours and social zones with even more buzz. And we need to ensure we have zones without white noise as it can cause headaches in about 10% of the population. Overall we should strive to have different lighting levels, energy levels and acoustic levels to support varying levels of activity and personal preference.”

But what if the management finds the cost to create this environment too high?

“First, if you design the right way from scratch, it should not have any significant cost impact. Second, approximately 80% of a company’s costs go to human resources. Roughly 10% is spent on real estate and another 10% on technology. If you lose 20% in productivity or people leave because of a poor workplace experience, that will cost you more money than you might spend making the space more welcoming and accessible to all. Everybody looks at the real estate cost, but nobody seems to look at the human cost. There is an opportunity to have big gains in engagement, productivity and innovation if we design spaces that truly support people and they can be more effective. That’s what we should be focused on.”

What is the response when you are talking about neurodiversity at workplaces?

“There is huge interest. Three or four years ago, most people did not know what the term meant. Today, a lot of companies are creating diversity programs, which is wonderful. They see the benefit. But for many, the obstacle is that they don’t know where to start and where to find help. The industry has an important task in providing this. We have an opportunity to create environments that are diverse, welcoming, and inclusive, not only to benefit neurodiverse individuals, but for the benefit of all of us. And that makes good social and business sense.”

Three areas of recommendation

To meet this interest, Kay Sargent and her team at HOK has come up with a series of recommendations, put in three different buckets:

  1. Policies and procedures
    This address general suggestions regarding considerations for hiring, onboarding and operational protocols as well as tools individuals can leverage to help feel included and to be able to reach their potential.
  2. The built environment
    Here is advice on how to create areas or zones where hyper- and hyposensitive persons can have choice and some degree of control over their environment, such as the lighting, the sound level and other stimulating factors.
  3. Individual adjustments
    This involves programs or tools that help people empower themselves to be more effectual. It could be the possibility to record meetings, for dictation software instead of typing, working remotely or simply using headphones.

In the report “Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace”, HOK has also highlighted the design considerations that their research suggest are the most impactful choices for an including workplace.

Six design considerations for an including workplace

1. Spatial organization

It is important to be able to navigate easily and intuitively understand spaces. If it is chaotic or cluttered, some people can’t function. The more people have to think and navigating my way through, the more flustered they become. Designing spaces with intuitive wayfinding elements can assist our brains’ innate positioning systems. Be it various lighting levels, signage, art, or the strategic use of colour that act as memorable landmarks.

2. Spatial character

You can change a space to give it a character that offers clear choices. Lower the ceiling, change the colour on the walls, use softer lighting and/or use softer materials so you get a lower acoustic level. Aim to create spaces with characteristics that make it intuitive and supports the focused activities that are taking place there.

3. Acoustic quality

Noise tends to be one of the most common complaints people have with their space. Create different zones, instead of treating the acoustics as one blanket spread out across the entire workplace. Using different tools like white noise, natural sounds and soft materials can help create the right acoustic level based on the activity and energy level you are trying to create. Where neurotypicals may find noise distracting and annoying, neurodiverse individuals can find it downright disabling.

4. Thermal comfort

If you are freezing or being too hot, it is very difficult to be productive. But you can’t design a space that have the right thermal comfort for everyone, as there are so many personal factors involved. You can however create tools that help guide people to a spot with their preferred temperature. Aided by the sun, you will naturally have areas of the building that are warmer or cooler during certain parts of the day. With this information, obtained from sensors in the building, you can provide real time data that gives information about the thermal status in different parts of the building. You may also provide some degree of individual temperature controls, via operable window or local air diffuser.

5. Lighting

People tend to walk toward the light, so if you want a social space, turn up the lights. If you want a quiet zone, drop the level of light. Lighting can help dictating and support the kind of behaviours we want in a space. And of course, access to natural light can have a positive impact on people as well.

6. Degree of stimulation

As noted in this piece, people that are neurodiverse tend to be hypo-or hypersensitive to their surroundings. Just as a person with different physical challenges requires unique solutions tailored to their needs, so is the case with neurodivergents. For some it’s a lack of stimulation while others are easily overwhelmed by it. Creating options to control or choose the degree of sensory stimulation is a key aspect of inclusive design.

Text: Lars Wirtén
Photos: Eric Laignel


More about neurodiversity from HOK:

Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace (article)

Trends affecting neurodiversity towards 2030 (article)

Article by Kay Sargent in Workdesign magazine (article)

On research on hypo and hyper sensitivities (video)

On pediatric healthcare (article)

Tarkett Neurodiversity Tool, to aid in the selection of flooring materials that support inclusive spaces (video)