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Why do architects need to understand neurodiversity?

Words:
Helen Castle

While there is now a BSI standard relating to neurodiversity in the built environment, it remains largely overlooked by the profession. Three experts with lived and design experience look at how architects can better respond to the issue

Mark Ellerby Architects, sketch for Emmaus Centre, St Thomas More School, Bedford, 2018. The Individual Needs Support Centre, completed in 2019, provides integration and inclusion of pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) within mainstream secondary education.
Mark Ellerby Architects, sketch for Emmaus Centre, St Thomas More School, Bedford, 2018. The Individual Needs Support Centre, completed in 2019, provides integration and inclusion of pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) within mainstream secondary education. Credit: Thomas More

Neurodiversity Celebration Week is now in its sixth year and there is now a BSI standard, PAS 6463, dedicated to neurodiversity and the built environment. So why is there still a fundamental lack of understanding of neurodivergence among the profession? And why does neurodiversity deserve greater attention from architects, both as designers of the built environment and as colleagues in the workplace?

I've attempted to respond to those questions by drawing on the knowledge of three experts: Kudzai Matsvai, EDI specialist, architectural designer and educator; Stephanie Kyle, architect and inclusive design consultant at Maber Architects; and architect Mark Ellerby, who has designed several educational buildings for autistic pupils and pupils with special educational needs. All three spoke at an event organised by the Diversity and Inclusion Group of Birmingham Architectural Association (BAA).

Why does neurodiversity remain a neglected area of EDI?

From a wider EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) perspective, Kudzai recognises that neurodiversity is often overlooked. She identifies the issues as threefold. Firstly, a lack of knowledge comes with a fear of not saying the ‘correct’ thing. Secondly, progress is impeded by it not being ‘platformed in the same way as other areas of EDI, such as gender’, so that it goes ‘unacknowledged; and is ‘sadly drowned out by the noise’. Finally, the most important concern, ‘given the current state of architectural education and practice’ is that ‘the profession has a bad habit of looking at areas of EDI in isolation. We have a ‘one thing at a time’ mentality when it comes to exploring and understanding diverse characteristics, she says, and this essentially creates a hierarchy of importance.’ She gives the example of how the spotlight was put on Black Lives Matter in 2020 before it was ‘abandoned’ as people moved on to ‘the next issue’.

Neurodiversity in Architecture event organised by Kavita Dhande of the Diversity and Inclusion Group of Birmingham Architectural Association (BAA) on 22 February 2024. Left to right: Kudzai Matsvai, Mark Ellerby, Helen Castle and Stephanie Kyle.
Neurodiversity in Architecture event organised by Kavita Dhande of the Diversity and Inclusion Group of Birmingham Architectural Association (BAA) on 22 February 2024. Left to right: Kudzai Matsvai, Mark Ellerby, Helen Castle and Stephanie Kyle. Credit: Solomon Ofoaiye

Defining neurodiversity

As an inclusive designer and course tutor at Nottingham University with lived experience, architect Stephanie Kyle is well placed to define neurodiversity, breaking it down into ‘the combination of the three neurocognitive profiles’: neurotypical, neurodivergent and neurodegenerative.

We are all born with either a neurotypical or neurodivergent cognitive profile, which may be influenced by genetic factors or early developmental changes, she says. Neurotypicality represents the cognitive profile of the majority, while neurodivergence encompasses variations such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dissociative identity disorder and Tourette’s syndrome. Neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, lead to changes in cognitive function over time.

Kyle emphasises that: ‘Neurodiverse inclusive design aims to create environments suitable for individuals with any cognitive profile, including neurotypical. Through thoughtful design and management strategies, it becomes possible to mitigate potential challenges and create spaces where all individuals can thrive equitably.’

The first steps that architects might take to understanding neurodiversity

How do architects, often hampered by the fear of saying the wrong thing, as Matsvai describes, start to move forward and develop an awareness of neurodiversity? Kyle advises taking a ‘deep dive into the subject’. This requires more than desk research; it ‘means reaching out to user groups and stakeholder communities, really listening to the lived experiences of neurodivergent individuals, and most importantly, involving them in the design process.

‘You can't make decisions on their behalf,’ she says. ‘It's about collaborating and understanding that each person's experience is unique.’ It’s also about ‘recognising your own limits’. This requires ‘seeking guidance from inclusive design consultants’ she says, ‘and, most importantly, from individuals with lived experience of neurodivergence.’

She likens this to architects developing ‘a basic understanding of fire safety or acoustics in design but still relying on fire engineers and acoustic consultants for advice’.

  • Mark Ellerby Architects, Nightingale Centre, Mark Rutherford School, Bedford, 2013. The centre aims to create an oasis of calm through a series of staggered ‘classroom’ blocks with a snaking corridor. Its curved wall – easier for brains to compute, avoiding hidden corners – has proved a favourite with students.
    Mark Ellerby Architects, Nightingale Centre, Mark Rutherford School, Bedford, 2013. The centre aims to create an oasis of calm through a series of staggered ‘classroom’ blocks with a snaking corridor. Its curved wall – easier for brains to compute, avoiding hidden corners – has proved a favourite with students. Credit: James Galpin/Richardson and Peat Ltd
  • Mark Ellerby Architects, Nightingale Centre, Mark Rutherford School, Bedford, 2013. The centre aims to create an oasis of calm through a series of staggered ‘classroom’ blocks with a snaking corridor. Its curved wall – easier for brains to compute, avoiding hidden corners – has proved a favourite with students.
    Mark Ellerby Architects, Nightingale Centre, Mark Rutherford School, Bedford, 2013. The centre aims to create an oasis of calm through a series of staggered ‘classroom’ blocks with a snaking corridor. Its curved wall – easier for brains to compute, avoiding hidden corners – has proved a favourite with students. Credit: James Galpin/Richardson and Peat Ltd
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What are the most important design considerations and processes for architects to undertake when designing with neurodiversity in mind?

Kyle identifies seven overarching strategies that can be implemented to create environments that prioritise neurodiversity:

  • Reduction of sensory stimulation
  • Transition and preview space: creating clear spatial transitions and wayfinding cues to reduce disorientation and anxiety
  • Control of privacy and environmental factors: offering diverse environmental choices through variation in seating arrangements and noise control
  • Direct views to elements of interest: designing spaces with access and views of outdoor areas and nature
  • Human-scale massing and proportions
  • Elemental individualism and recognition of place: incorporating unique features and fostering a sense of belonging, helping individuals to navigate unfamiliar environments with confidence
  • Stepped, hierarchical organisation: establishing clear hierarchies of space usage, from social to private areas, facilitating smooth transitions and enhancing overall user experience.

The minimising of sensory overload by mitigating visual and auditory stimulation, she regards as ‘paramount’. ‘It involves avoiding intense colours, high contrasts, flickering lights, and intense noise levels,’ she explains. ‘Opting for natural palettes and acoustic design considerations can significantly reduce stress and anxiety for neurodivergent individuals.’

As Kyle highlights, adopting these design considerations for neurodiversity also enhances the wellbeing of all users, whether it is improving spatial navigation, human proportion, sense of place or connecting the built environment better to views of nature.

Designing with the autism spectrum in mind

Mark Ellerby runs a small practice outside Bath with expertise in Passivhaus buildings, off-site design/construction and an interest in using natural building methods. A background in designing educational buildings has also led to a specialism in designing for autism and SEND (special education needs and disability). Having completed a specialist autism integration facility at a Bedford Academy in 2012, his practice undertook three further schemes for the National Autistic Society, creating Inclusion units (Cullum Centres) enabling autistic pupils to access mainstream education.

For Ellerby, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the design process. The first step towards success is creating an effective design brief. However, he highlights that you must, ‘go beyond what the client knows’. It is the architect’s role ‘to cross-fertilise ideas and best practice, but being able to do so relies on mutually respectful understanding of each contributor’s knowledge. Drawing all this out is quite a challenge.’

Time is essential for discussing and researching ideas, surfacing requirements, specifying the amount and type of layouts, sketching out layouts and fully understanding teaching methods and learning strategies. He found one of the most constructive processes was to work with a teaching assistant with lived experience. Including autistic pupils in the design and construction process, particularly once the building is on site, can also ‘help settle the pupils into the new building with minimal disruption or anxiety’. All this, though, also requires ‘representatives/leaders of the special needs provision within the school and the school senior management being aligned’.

Ellerby’s preference has been to work from the inside out. That way the detailed design of the individual rooms and their furniture are ‘central to the building design’. Consideration of ‘teaching walls’ and storage provision can determine where windows and doors are located. This helps to ‘minimise visual clutter and computer glare, creating ambient welcoming spaces where learning can happen [naturally].’

Location, sun, orientation, views and building form also have an important bearing on the design. The location of the inclusion unit within a mainstream school is, for instance, just as important as its spatial design. For autistic pupils it needs to be ‘quiet, but still central … avoiding stigma’.

How should practices cater better for their neurodivergent staff?

No reliable data yet exists for the percentage of staff in architectural practices with neurodivergent conditions. It could be as many as 30 or 40 per cent. Anecdotally, we know that many architects are dyslexic, without taking into consideration other conditions.

The situation is further complicated by the long waiting lists – often years – for diagnoses. As Kyle highlights, there are ‘likely to be individuals in the office who are currently undergoing the diagnostic process, believing they may be neurodivergent but feeling uncertain about the diagnosis process’. They ‘may even choose not to seek an official diagnosis altogether’. She recommends that ‘the most inclusive approach is to make accommodations for all staff members that foster a better environment for neurodivergent individuals’.

The strategies she recommends include: implementing a quieter and less bustling office day once a week with dimmed lights and no music; providing various working zones that are accessible to all staff, including a quieter independent working area and a more social, collaborative zone, so individuals can choose to select the environment that best suits their needs at any given time.

Accommodations also need to be made for staff members who require more flexible working hours. For remote meetings, it is important to provide the option to have cameras turned off during meetings. Managers can work with each staff member to develop a productivity plan tailored to their preferences, such as granting autonomy to those who prefer working independently or providing clear, structured tasks for others.

Kyle emphasises that ‘working with each employee to identify what works best for them ultimately enhances productivity and outcomes, as everyone has unique needs to perform at their best’.

Carefully selected training on neurodiversity for managers and company-wide for all staff – preferably from someone with lived experience – is also important for ‘empowering employees and creating a more inclusive and supportive work environment’.

Striving to understand for social change

Matsvai sums up neurodiversity’s place in the wider diversity and inclusion landscape by providing a strong reminder of the responsibilities of the design profession. ‘As architects and designers,’ she says, ‘we must strive to better understand the lived experiences and realities of different groups in society because we are the ones who shape and create a large part of the material reality of that society.’

Involving ‘everyone's experiences and realities in the design decisions we make’ ensures ‘certain groups and individuals do not remain on the margins of society’.

Birmingham Architectural Association (BAA) was founded in 1874. It aims to promote, support and share knowledge throughout the community. Kavita Dhande is the founder of BAA’s Diversity and Inclusion Group, which provides a platform to pioneer and empower change as well as implement equity, diversity and inclusion across the design and construction industry

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