Designing for Neurodiversity
What is sensory design, why could it be life-changing for around 15% of us – and why should everyone know about it?
Why are these statistics relevant to design? Largely because a considerable number of neurodivergent – as well as some neurotypical – people experience some kind of sensory processing difference (SPD), where a person could be hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive to, say, textures, visuals, smells or noises (and more). This means their surroundings are likely to have a significant effect on their wellbeing. And all that, of course, makes interior design and architecture important areas where understanding and response can radically improve a person’s quality of life.
As awareness of SPD grows, so too does the number of professionals in the industry factoring it into their work. Meet some of them below and learn what design that is mindful of the senses looks like – and how it can benefit us all.
We can probably all imagine an environment that might make it hard to focus, or one that makes you want to shut your eyes or cover your ears, or provokes anxiety, even fear. Maybe it’s a room where you can’t escape the sound of nails scraping down a blackboard, or being surrounded by teetering piles of dusty paperwork or perhaps a slippery patio.
Now imagine the things giving rise to those sorts of feelings are everywhere – and that the people around you don’t seem to notice them. It’s a very broad brushstroke comparison, but gives a tiny insight into life as a person with sensory processing differences, who, recent research suggests, make up around 16% of the population.
Stephanie Kyle is one of them. She’s also an architect and an inclusive design consultant at Maber, which specialises in public and commercial projects.
“When I was 12, I was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder [APD], which is under the neurodivergent umbrella,” she says. As an adult, she’s been diagnosed with autism.
Stephanie recalls school trips and buildings that were “horrific” for her, including an aquarium. “It was a reason I wanted to become an architect. I thought, ‘I can do better.’”
SPD is more noticeable in children than adults – or, at least, adults may often have learned better coping mechanisms.*
Stylist and sensory home consultant Pippa Jameson, who has an autistic teenage daughter, says, “I noticed from around three or four that my daughter was uncomfortable with her surroundings; noises and smells from the kitchen and mess were very stressful for her,” she says. “She couldn’t bear cleaning her teeth, she couldn’t go to sleep very easily, and she did a lot of mime talking, which was her trying to process the information around her.”
Pippa eventually sought a diagnosis and the family learned her daughter was autistic and began to understand more about her sensory difficulties.
* According to the charity, Seashell.
“The link between neurodiversity and interior design became very apparent to me a few years back when my son started to have very strong thoughts, opinions and behaviours in spaces he was in,” says Sophia, also an ADHD ambassador for her county.
“ADHD really is a superpower – and, if trained well, it can lead to incredible outcomes. But children and adults with ADHD also have to juggle having noisy minds and being easily distracted, disorganised and unable to rest or sit still, plus they can talk excessively,” she says. “They can take risks or be careless and don’t always see danger.
“Sensory processing disorder can go hand-in-hand with ADHD,” she adds, “and environments are key to helping all the effects of both.”
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What sorts of design features can be difficult for someone with sensory processing differences?
Just like people, responses will vary wildly. “My experiences are completely different to someone else who’s autistic,” Stephanie says. However, she explains, some things tend to be commonly difficult. “Standouts include too much sensory stimulation, for example high-contrast features, black and white or crazy patterns,” she says.
Stephanie suggests perception should also be considered. “For example, if you have a blue carpet with a wavy pattern, to someone with Alzheimer’s disease, or a visual sensory processing difference, that could be seen as water,” she says.
Stephanie recalls this happening on the dementia ward of a care home, where the residents had stopped going into the garden, believing they were already in it, thanks to a newly installed rug they perceived as the pond.
Part of the aim is to provide an environment that will help someone to “regulate” – ie, to reach a point where they are not overwhelmed and can function well, engage, respond proportionately to stimuli, focus, and generally feel calm and relaxed.
“It’s an individual process and takes a lot of unpicking of things [we may have done] without thinking about our sensory responses,” explains Pippa, who is also author of the book, The Sensory Home (Ryland Peters & Small).
In a consultation, Pippa asks clients to walk her through their homes, describing how they feel on entering, what they can see that brings comfort, what they can smell and so on.
Read on for some of the key considerations for a home designed to soothe the senses.
Stephanie advises focusing on anything permanent, such as brick choice, flooring and external materials.
With bricks, for example, seek multi-tonal colours and rough- rather than wire-cut. “Our brains are designed to process organic geometries and, as soon as we look at something orthogonal [involving right angles], our brain says, ‘This is important, I’ve got to concentrate.’ So your brain works harder,” she says.
“People with sensory processing differences tend to process everything, whereas someone with a neurotypical brain can filter things out that aren’t relevant,” she explains.
Sensory reduction – no pattern, low saturation colours, no contrast – may be a helpful approach for some autistic people, Stephanie says, “But somebody with ADHD may need sensory stimulation to focus.” So Stephanie would typically provide choice – three muted walls, one patterned, for example.
“Sensory design doesn’t mean plain and bland. We need to feed the senses to create the correct emotion for that area – then zone to define those feelings,” agrees Sophia, who designed her own, decidedly un-bland bathroom (pictured) with son Maddien in mind.
In terms of colour, across the board, Stephanie advises low-chromatic tones. “In laymen’s terms, a colour that has a bit of grey mixed into it,” she says.
More: Room Tour: A Small Bathroom With a Sloping Ceiling is Reworked
“Incorporate indoor plants, natural materials and breathable fabrics, such as linen and cotton for bedding, to enhance the connection with nature and reduce stress,” Pippa says. “Use a sensory alarm clock with a sunrise and sunset simulation for a calm wake-up routine.”
“Being in areas with a lack of nature or natural elements creates a stark and unwelcoming feeling,” Sophia agrees. She asked Maddien to comment on this, too.
“I like to be around plants and nature; I like playing outside. I love to hear nature, especially the sound of water or the forest, to fall asleep to,” he says. “It’s difficult to be in very busy spaces; sometimes I feel unsafe and it’s always so bright and noisy.”
“Someone who’s autistic has to have things in place; everything has to be set up properly, otherwise it’s stressful,” Pippa says.
“Use low-level lighting, tactile elements, and personal items to designate areas for regulation. For children, small tents or tipis can provide a sense of security.”
“Areas with defined zones for rest, eat and play help to organise a chaotic mind,” Sophia agrees.
“If we take away eyesight, humans’ most powerful sense is smell,” Stephanie says. Her approach to design with this in mind is always to ventilate heavily, “so that if someone burns toast, you can get that smell out quickly”.
Pippa advises integrated bins, too. “I’d also say to avoid synthetic air fresheners, which can be overbearing,” she adds.
“Use smart sensory lighting that can be customised,” Pippa says. “We couldn’t change all our lighting, as we’d already renovated, so we added LED strips in the girls’ rooms, with a remote control, so they can control their lighting.”
Pippa also loves smart bulbs and plug-in wireless sound/light systems, which won’t involve rewiring. “As a general rule, simply having layers of lighting will give options if someone’s feeling overwhelmed, and I’d always advise dimmer switches,” she says.
“Try to reduce both external and internal noise,” Pippa says. “Plant trees and shrubs to reduce outdoor noise, and add bookshelves, acoustic panels, extra underlay, and soft furnishings indoors to absorb sound.
“Ensure the relevant bedrooms are in the quietest position in the house, away from traffic noise,” she continues. “And look out for ‘quiet’ appliances for the kitchen.”
“Interestingly, I have my older, neurotypical daughter to thank for the birth of all things sensory home,” Pippa says. “One day she came in, sat down and said, ‘I’m just so happy at home! I love the colours, the music, the smell…’
“What I realised in that moment was how important sensory design was for all of us,” she continues. “We now know our surroundings are intrinsically linked to our mental health and that the decisions we make, the colours we choose and how we set up our homes are all going to affect our mood.”
“As a family, we find that what helps Maddien benefits us all,” Sophia says. “With more and more people of all ages struggling with anxiety, mental health and spectrum disorders, we need to be more conscious of what we can control and help our own environments. Our homes should be our havens and happy families stem from happy homes.”
Do you have experience of sensory processing difficulties, neurodivergence or heightened sensitivity to interiors or architecture – and how does your home make a difference? Let us know in the Comments.