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Neurodiverse design that helps harness talent

At Hilson Moran we are participating in #NeurodiversityCelebrationWeek a worldwide initiative that challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences. In her latest blog, Design Director Marie-Louise Schembri looks at the potential impact of neurodiverse design on health, wellbeing, inclusivity and social impact.

Between 30% and 40% of the population are thought to be neurodiverse. The remaining majority are neurotypical. But how often does neurodiversity come up in design workshops and industry conversations about accessible design, designing for health and wellbeing, inclusivity, social impact?

In my experience, not often at all. There is too little knowledge around the table to translate into practical definitions and outcomes. Guidance exists, but it does not get the attention it deserves from professional groups that are closer to the design process. The information available needs to evolve into a tool that extends to decision makers at every gateway of project realisation.

What is neurodiversity?

“Neurodiversity is the concept that all humans vary in terms of our neurocognitive ability. Everyone has talents and things they struggle with. However, for some people the variation between those strengths and weaknesses is more pronounced, which can bring talent but can also be disabling.
Neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage when the individuals are in the right environment, making use of their strengths, instead of constantly trying to overcome challenges. To achieve this we must create inclusive spaces to work and learn that reduce disabling factors and amplify diverse abilities.”

Source: GeniusWithin.org

What does an environment that harnesses talent (and reduced challenges) look like?

In recent years, the attention paid to health and wellbeing matters in design has been amplified. We are increasingly aware of how air quality, natural light, white noise, adaptability of space and biophilia enhance workplace environments, improve productivity and staff retention, and reduce absenteeism. We are testing this at our own WELL-certified Manchester office and have access to tools and research that help us deliver better places, inside and out.

A consciously neurodiverse environment expands the subject of adaptability by providing choice to the users of spaces. This choice needs to cover the full spectrum of mental abilities needs in order to cater for both hypersensitive and hyposensitive individuals. This means, for example, that when forming spaces for creative thinking, you provide both intimate, structured quieter enclosures, as well as spaces in an open plan with adaptable furniture and interactive screens. Similar principles apply to spaces for focussing, educating, socialising and recharging.

At the same time, visual noise can induce sensory overload, migraine and confusion. Design needs to avoid extremities in shared areas like entrances, corridors and canteens. For example, strong contrasting colours in these locations should be avoided.

Existing guidance focusses primarily on layout, colours and materiality, but less on environmental engineering. Acoustic and lighting environments are critical to achieving optimum conditions for different types of spaces. Some inclusivity requirements align with health and wellbeing design principles but with added benefit, such as natural light to help occupants understand the time of day, and biophilia, because it tends towards calmer colour palettes and natural patterns.

We are living in a time when agile working is becoming more commonplace, and some industries encourage a return to in-person collaboration and increased social interaction. Providing a work environment that helps talent and relationships thrive has never been more relevant. The current workforce shortages and challenges with recruitment make the case for supporting neurodiverse talent even stronger.

Existing and upcoming resources include the new BSI standard ‘PAS 6463 Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment – Guide’ expected in May 2022, workplace and schools resources at the Neurodiversity Week website, and events and resources pulled together by RIBA since 2021.

Please get in touch if you would like to hear more about how we can support neurodiverse design: mschembri@hilsonmoran.com

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