Guiding Principles to Design for Neurodiversity

April 21, 2022

The concept of neurodiversity acknowledges and celebrates the innate variation in human brain function and behavioral traits throughout the population. While many people are neurotypical (having brain functions and behaviors considered typical), between 15% and 20% of the U.S. population are considered neurodivergent (having brain functions and behaviors that are not considered neurotypical including Autism, ADHD, and dyslexia). Neurodiversity exists when neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals inhabit a group environment. To design for the wide spectrum encompassed by neurodiversity, we approach projects from a place of empathy, seeking to understand the many ways people may experience and interact with the world around them. By thinking beyond one type of user, we can open up more opportunities that may not otherwise have been considered to create learning environments that are more inclusive and supportive for all students.

KSS Partner Mayva Donnon and Associate Beth Emig spoke to this topic at the Association for Learning Environments’ Northeast Conference this month. In the session, “Guiding Principles to Design for Neurodiversity,” Mayva and Beth explored a framework to design learning environments that celebrate and support neurodiversity. Derived from KSS’ experience designing Bancroft’s Mount Laurel Campus, which serves children with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities, and Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services Community Center, which helps adults with autism lead independent and fulfilling lives, this framework was developed specifically in response to the design of learning environments and incorporates relevant concepts and lessons that can equally be applied to other types of spaces such as workplaces. The framework is comprised of three overarching lenses—Physical and Psychological Safety, Attention Restoration, and Community of Learning. Within each lens are a series of interconnected principles that guide the design of environments that are empowering for all.


Physical & Psychological Safety

Students can be curious and confident when they feel safe and can navigate their environment with ease.

    • Principle 1: Safety & Security – Incorporate active and passive security strategies to foster feelings of safety and security.
    • Principle 2: Familiarity & Clarity – Empower students to independently navigate the built environment through clear circulation patterns and signage, incorporation of color cues, and views to the exterior to orient within the space.
    • Principle 3: Managing Transitions – Ease transitions from one activity or space to another through visual access into and between rooms, appropriately sizing spaces to accommodate motor skills, movement, and high staff-to-participant ratios, and avoiding long double-loaded corridors, dead-end corridors, and hard turns.
    • Principle 4: Choice & Independence – Design for flexibility and modularity to ensure adaptability over time. Provide a variety of space types to empower students to learn in an environment where they feel most confident and at ease.

    Attention Restoration

    Attention is a precious, yet finite, resource. Students’ attention can be supported and restored through sensory and biophilic design strategies that yield numerous cognitive benefits.

      • Principle 5: Engaging the Senses – Provide control over sensory stimuli through layers of lighting and lighting control, including daylight control, reduced background noise from mechanical equipment, and temperature control.
      • Principle 6: Biophilic Design – Design for access to nature, natural light, rhythmic order, and routine through tactile, visual, and passive experiences to optimize attentional resource allocation.
      • Principle 7: Respite & Restoration – Build in places for students and staff to take breaks and recharge, play and socialize, and let off steam.

      Community of Learning

      An institution for learning is more than four walls, it is a community of students, teachers, and administrators united by the common values and shared goals. For a student to be successful in the classroom and in life, they must feel part of this larger community.

        • Principle 8: Proximity Without Engagement –Create opportunities for students to observe and approach social situations at their own pace by connecting shared spaces and creating areas on edges where students can feel part of things without directly engaging.
        • Principle 9: Community – Foster connection within the internal school community as well as the community at large through “real-world” opportunities for students to acquire skills and training to have jobs within the larger community.

        When it comes to what we need out of a learning environment, there is more that unites us than divides us. While the most vulnerable among us may have a more acute reaction to a poorly designed environment, the same buzzing lights or terrible acoustics are taxing and draining to all of us, even if we have developed better coping behaviors. When designing from a place of empathy, we design learning spaces that are more enjoyable, inviting, and empowering for all students.