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British standard sets out key principles for neurodiverse design

Words:
Stephen Cousins

New national guidelines covering how to design buildings for neurodiverse occupants and users are the first of their kind

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First-of-their-kind national guidelines on designing buildings for people with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other conditions have been published which aim to accommodate variations in how people perceive, process and organise sensory information.

It’s estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent in some way. The new British Standard, PAS 6463:2022 Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment, applies both to buildings and external spaces for public and commercial use, and to  residential accommodation for independent or supported living.

The standard was developed based on qualitative research, augmented by more recent studies and input from a steering group including the RIBA, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Department for Education, Buro Happold and Le Lay Architects.

Neurodiverse people can find certain aspects of the built environment ‘uncomfortable, distressing or a barrier to their use’, the document explains. Among other things, ‘sensory overload’ can result from ‘what feels like a bombardment of sensory stimuli experienced without the ability to filter, or from spatial perception difficulties’. This can lead to stress and anxiety. The amount of space that people feel they need between themselves and others, known as proxemics, can also vary due to cultural and/or neurological differences.

Various aspects of building design are tackled in the standard.

Facades Large areas of reflective materials, such as some metals or glazing, should be avoided as these  cause discomfort or disability glare. Curved walls are generally considered to be calming, with a more natural shape and pleasing appearance to help people with sensory or information processing differences.

Entrances and exits Designs should be reviewed to reduce a sense of crowding  and imposition on personal space. Where practicable, alternative entrances and exits with clear signage should be provided.

Windows Double or triple glazed windows and acoustic glazing should be installed where outside noise penetrates inside space, even with windows in the closed position. Temperature loss or gain through glazing should also be taken into account.

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Internal layouts This is one of the most important areas for people with sensory and/or information processing differences. Spaces should be spacious enough for people to circulate without bumping into things, and personal space boundaries should be assessed and reviewed, especially for people with conditions affecting co-ordination or balance, such as dyspraxia or Meniere’s disease.

Large spaces can be daunting but also provide better opportunities to move freely and to view from a distance when inside the space, which can be helpful to people with social anxiety. Internal division can help meet the needs of people who require smaller spaces through perhaps high back seating or walls that  do not enclose completely.

Spatial transitions Features that help people to choose and move from one space to another should be accounted for. A transition that encompasses various gentle sensory transitions – including light, sound, texture and smell – is preferred.

Flooring Adjacent floor or ground surfaces with low contrast differences should prevent or reduce the likelihood of a person tripping or becoming confused or affect people with dementia or Parkinson’s when initiating movement.

Green space Outdoor spaces should be designed, where practicable, to provide areas for activity and areas for retreat and calm. Smaller pockets of green space, alongside larger spaces, can enhance contemplation and focus.

See more on neurodiversity and design. 

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