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Neurodiversity & Mental Health in the Built Environment

Ever been trapped in an office reminiscent of a Rubik's cube? Or perhaps you've been in a workspace that was so minimalist, you were afraid to leave a pen out of place? I can relate; as someone who's neurodivergent myself, the intricacies of how built environments affect our brains intrigue me to no end.

I’ve literarily and figuratively had this subject on the brain for a long time.

Now, we all know that a one-shoe size does not fit all, so why do we take that approach to the workplace? Just like our Netflix recommendations or our unique coffee orders (I’m looking at you, double shot, half almond-half soy, pumpkin spiced, extra hot latte folks), our workspaces shouldn't be generic. In fact, it's high time we recognised the powerful interplay between neurodiversity, mental health, and office design.

Enter feedback loops: a process where outputs from a system return as inputs, leading to continuous adaptation. By integrating these loops, the idea is to co-create spaces that are dynamic and adaptable. Instead of moulding ourselves to fit the environment, we shape our workspaces to fit us. Isn’t that a radical thought? It’s a bit like your office wearing the sorting hat from Harry Potter and yelling, "Gryffindor!"... or maybe "Open Plan!", depending on your needs.

As the witty Frank Chimero once said, "People ignore design that ignores people." and isn’t that the truth! Our well-being can be significantly influenced by our physical surroundings. So, whether you’re neurotypical, or neurodivergent, it's essential to be involved in shaping these spaces. After all, we're not only creating a place to work; we're cultivating environments that nurture, inspire, and contribute to our overall well-being.

Four things to consider:

  • Cognitive Affordance: When people design an element in a way that shows people how to use it, like the stop button on the bus. Transparent doors or clear signage can minimise stress and reduce decision fatigue.

  • Zone Creation: Designate spaces for collaboration, quiet reflection, and recreation. Everyone needs a chance to huddle up, hunker down, or hang out.

  • Sensory Considerations: Recognise that sensory overload is very real. Opt for adjustable lighting, noise-buffered spaces, and soothing colour palettes for certain sections.

  • Social Community Spaces: These are not a ‘nice to have’, they’re an essential element! Encourage positive interactions by creating comfortable communal areas.

I believe it's time to bridge the gap between the built environment and our diverse brains. I for one champion adaptability, inclusivity, and feedback-centric design. And if you ever want to discuss this over a quirky coffee order, I’m all ears!

Guest Blog written by Oliver Baxter, our partner Consultant based in the Middle East and Africa.

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