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Workplace Design for the Neurodiverse Helps Everyone

Bryan Berthold • 12/8/2022


Sometimes late into the night, Elizabeth Beck finds herself still awake, seated at her home-office desk, intently focused on work. She calls it her “goblin mode,” and it’s the quiet time where she finds solitude and space to focus on heads-down analytical work, with fewer distractions that make it difficult to regulate and direct her attention—a challenge sometimes for Elizabeth, who discovered last year that she was autistic. She is often sensitive to light and sound, so she works underneath soft, white LED lights, because she says she can sometimes hear fluorescent lighting, which she finds sterile and unsettling. Diagnosed with ADHD in her early 20s, she takes medication that can make it difficult to regulate her body temperature, so even in the heat of Atlanta—where she lives and works as an appraiser for Cushman & Wakefield—she might sport a fleece and a thick, knit puffball hat.

As someone who navigates the assets and liabilities of both autism and ADHD, Elizabeth identifies as neurodivergent—meaning she’s neurologically divergent from neurologically typical, or neurotypical, folks. That doesn’t mean it’s difficult for her to connect with others or do her job well. Elizabeth’s colleagues adore her—not only for her intelligence and depth of knowledge but also for her enthusiasm and disarming sense of humor. They describe her as thoughtful, caring and blunt—but in a great way. They also say she is supportive, creative, and articulate with complex topics and abstract feelings—and that she’s the epitome of a team player, always looking to engage and help in any way she can.

It’s clear that her co-workers don’t accept Elizabeth despite her neurodivergence—they embrace her because of it. They’re asking questions like, “How do we find more talent like Elizabeth?” and “How do we keep the Elizabeths we already have?”

They’re not alone in asking questions like these. From household names like Microsoft External Link and Citibank External Link to England’s Manchester City soccer team External Link and even the local zoo, organizations around the world are recognizing that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) incorporates forms of diversity that go beyond race, gender and religion to include neurological differences like dyslexia, autism and ADHD. They’re affirming that an authentic DEI initiative is one that not only embraces and opens opportunities for the neurodivergent—by some estimates, 15-20% of the global population, and growing—but also develops an inclusive culture and creates mind-friendly work environments to support a neurodiverse workforce.

In theory, that looks like inclusive design, with spaces that accommodate everyone. But people, whether neurodivergent or not, work and interpret their workspaces differently. The same environment that relaxes or energizes some people can overwhelm or threaten others. The constant beeps, pings and background conversations of a conventional open-floorplan office, for example, might not faze a neurotypical person, but it might make their neurodiverse colleague feel like they’re being thrown into the middle of a crowd. The hour-long commute to the office and expectation to sit at a desk all day might not bother someone with neurotypicality, but it might send his or her co-worker into a tailspin of frustrating distraction and sensory overload. Even patterns, like the black and white zigzags on office chairs, which some might consider to be stylish and sophisticated, may cause others to experience dizziness or even crippling vertigo. In other words, inclusive design—though well-intended—isn’t always inclusive enough. Considering the many ways in which a neurodiverse population experiences physical space—and designing for those diverse experiences—puts us on a clearer path to creating less stressful, more supportive places to work.

Here’s the unexpected perk: designing sensory-aware workplace environments that support neurodivergent people also support, well, everyone—because not everyone knows that they are neurodivergent. Every human has a distinct sensory composition to process and manage stimuli from spatial and social environments. These senses connect us to everything in our world—and because every brain is wired in its own unique way, everyone interprets and experiences their environments differently. When we design spaces that respect the senses, we not only reduce stress responses—which no one is immune to—but we also support the mental health and overall wellbeing of every employee.

Inclusive design for the neurodiverse can offer other benefits, too. People with neurological differences—obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), dyspraxia and social anxiety for example—are the proverbial canary in the coal mine; whether hypersensitive or hyposensitive to stimuli, they will be the first to experience environments neurologically stressful, either through a surplus or a deficit of neurological sensitivity. Yet this same sensitivity often coexists with a high level of creativity, empathy and out-of-the-box thinking. The social challenges experienced by someone with autism, for example, are often overshadowed by an acute memory and critical attention to detail. Similarly, the time management difficulties that someone with ADHD experiences might be eclipsed by creative thinking and ability to hyper focus on important, time-sensitive projects.

Neurodivergent colleagues—like Elizabeth—bring a wealth of talent, passion and perspectives to our workplaces. The value that they bring to our companies and organizations underscores the importance of designing mind- and sensory-friendly environments that consider lighting, motion, sound, color, smells, temperature and even air quality, all of which can all affect neurological conditions, present themselves in myriad and unpredictable ways and contribute to a growing accumulation of stress in the brain and body. When we’re forced to consistently mask the sensory overload we experience in our environments, it leads to persistent cognitive strain and chronic stress, which reduces our ability to focus, actively listen and connect with others as well as our capacity for creativity, innovation and problem solving. It’s survival mode for the brain and body, often requiring additional time to become anchored and to regulate an overpowered nervous system—and it leads to a forced state of resilience that is neither natural nor sustainable. The result for people is pain and sensory exhaustion; the result for organizations is disengagement and attrition. In other words, chronic stress equals pure burnout.

According to a recent report by KPMG External Link, the financial implications of employee burnout add up to at least $4,000 per employee, per year. Multiply that by hundreds, or even thousands, of workers who are under a stress-induced level of burnout, and you have thousands of dollars in lost revenue, not to mention a subset of the workforce that is chronically, toxically stressed.

The good news, neurodiversity experts note, is that we’re moving away from an outdated medical model that declares neurological differences as something that is broken and must be fixed and toward a social model that sees the disabling environments as broken and something that must be fixed. Part of this road to repair involves meaningful dialogue about design and creating spaces that cohere with different cognitive styles—and it’s just as much about company culture and flexibility as it is about physical space. If people feel ashamed to utilize—or even privately benefit from—amenities or work-style options, the design won’t matter, and no amount of mind-friendly design adaptations will make up for the human need for flexibility, autonomy and self-management. Purposeful, inclusive, sensory-friendly design is intentional, incorporating accessible spaces for employees to bond and socialize but also to rest and recuperate. 

We are the on cusp of discovering the uniqueness and complexity that lies within neurodivergent populations, many of which seem to be growing at an unforeseen rate. Dyslexia, for example, currently affects one in five people, according to recent research from Yale University—and that number appears to be rising. It is estimated that more than 13% of the population struggles with ADHD. Forty years ago, autism was thought to affect one in 2,000 people; today it is believed to be one in 54. It’s safe to say that very few people have not had their lives touched in some way by neurodiversity—whether they’ve been diagnosed themselves or have had a child, parent, sibling or friend receive a neurodivergent diagnosis.

Despite this sharp growth, one of the key issues that affects neurodivergent people—and anyone experiencing chronic stress or a decline in mental health—is the invisibility of many conditions and often the reluctance to talk about it. Today though, the conversation about neurodiversity is growing, and we’re beginning to destigmatize the dialogue about neurological differences. TikTok is exploding with videos External Link of adults in their 30s, 40s and even 50s sharing their #adultADHD story, sometimes with aha! moments of taking medication for the first time or feelings of grief over a lifetime of struggling with the hallmarks of ADHD, including time management, organization and task initiation. When celebrities like Trevor Noah External Link and athletes like Simone Biles External Link openly disclose their personal experiences with ADHD, it helps begin the dialogue for everyone to talk about sensory health, mental health and neurological differences. It also serves as a reminder that, as humans, we may often feel like we’re running uphill—but some people are carrying a heavier cognitive load as they run.

It’s time to add to this conversation and shed a bright light on cognitive diversity and the many ways it influences the way we experience physical spaces. When we recognize that designing accessible, sensory-friendly environments helps everyone, we’re one step closer to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces that empower people to feel safe and supported, to self-manage and to do their best work. The result is an intentional workplace that embraces cognitive differences, contributes to everyone’s neurological health and uncovers the limitless potential of the Elizabeths of the world.

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