Designing Spaces for Neurodiversity


One of my all-time favourite TED talks is by Sir Ken Robinson, who in 2006 challenged the way we’re educating our children. He believes that in the West we hold on to the idea that intelligence is a function of intellectual ability. This drives an educational system that values some subjects as more important than others, often motivated by careers with higher financial rewards.

“There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach them mathematics,” he asks. “Why? Why not?”

We are all different, and the richness of our culture depends on this difference. Robinson proposes three principles to reform our education system and these are: diversity, curiosity and creativity.

I would recommend anyone to experience his TED Talk here, but beyond education reform, these principles would almost certainly provide important lessons for the design of our built environment. What if we designed space that celebrated diversity, or space that encouraged exploration, participation and creative interaction? If, rather than designing efficient functional space, we designed space as a dynamic environment that connected us to the world and to other people?

Diversity in this context is not cultural diversity, but the diversity that exists between individuals. We engage the world with sensory biology that varies from person to person. I recently attended an ‘Autism and Design’ conference in London, the first of its kind, organised by The National Autistic Society. One of the speakers, Dr Magda Mostafa, presented ASPECTSS™, a framework she created to evaluate “autism-appropriateness of a built environment”.

Our built environment is governed by design standards and these have a direct affect on our sensory experience. We are sensitive to noise, textures, colours, spatial configuration, ventilation etc. however, these are based on the neurotypical rather than a wider spectrum of the neurodiverse. By understanding how design affects people with a wide range of neurological and sensory capacities, we can begin to understand our own neurological outlook.

During the research, Mostafa asked parents and teachers what was the one thing they wished for. They all agreed “to take those fleeting moments of calm and connection with our children and make them last longer”. This is just one point where the work of Robinson and Mostafa comes together to speak to us as members of a wonderfully neurodiverse species. If we design for diversity, design spaces that foster interaction and exploration, space that supports a connection to yourself, your environment and the people you care about, then maybe we may also share in that moment of calm and connection.

If you have a project for people on the Autistic spectrum or with diverse sensory requirements, please contact us here