Social and Lifestyle
01 December 2020

Designing Rooms

Sensory patterns are a huge consideration when designing spaces for those living with a neurodiversity. But what else needs to be considered? 

Sensory patterns are a huge consideration when designing spaces for those living with a neurodiversity. But what else needs to be considered? 

Creating a living space where loved ones feel able to be their authentic selves is important to most Australian families. But few take that obligation more seriously than Joanne Viney.

In 2017, after years of searching for answers to behaviours and sensitivities Joanne describes as being “unlike other children in her peer groups”, the interior designer’s daughter was diagnosed as being neurodiverse.

Twelve months down the track her son was confirmed to be on the autism spectrum and, soon after, Joanne herself was diagnosed.

Having always had a professional interest in good design, initially as a photographic artist and later as the principal of her interior design firm Brinnie T Design, the three diagnoses forced Joanne to begin rethinking the way spaces are utilised.

Joanne says neurodiverse individuals - typically associated with diagnoses of Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, Autism, Tourette Syndrome or Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI) - are part of a growing population that has previously been ignored in design.

Thankfully, more research is now being done with accessible and inclusive design practices starting to be incorporated into design for neurodiversities as well as physical disabilities.

“These practices are becoming more readily available and are slowly being incorporated into government, departments, as well as filtering through into the private sector, domestic market and home environments,” she says.

Of the firm belief that our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing are intrinsically linked, Joanne’s own experiences of neurodiversity prompted her to begin focusing on the ways functionality could be improved and how this could bring about improved personal and emotional connections to both her own home and that of her clients.

Humans work on seven different senses – Auditory (sound), Tactile (touch), Visual (sight), Vestibular (motion), Olfactory (both smell and taste) and Proprioception (sense of the body’s location).

Joanne says neurotypical individuals innately receive, collect and process information about a space based on all of these senses instantly in a process called sensory integration. This provides a coherent perception of a situation or environment which then allows an individual the chance to make a decision on how to act.

For people on the autism spectrum, for example, these senses often lead to an “abnormal” response in terms of sensory information processing, she says.

Design firm Group GSA principal Sonja Duric has been working in interior design for the past 20 years and is part of a unique research group of designers with lived experiences of both neurodiversity and mental health challenges.

She says that between 5% and 16% of the Australian population has some form of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Typically, those with SPD can be divided into two categories, with most categorised as either over-responsive (hypersensitive) or under-responsive (hyposensitive) to the things they have difficulties with.

To understand how people engage with spaces they are in, it is important to understand the impact built environments have on our bodies, senses and “therefore our comfort and quality of life”, she says.
Individuals regulate their response to stimulation or input either passively or actively.

“An avoider and seeker actively regulate whilst a bystander and sensor passively regulate. An example of active regulation includes humming to block out noise. Passive regulation means that sensory input happens followed by a reaction. In the case of a sensor, an example of passive regulation includes feeling ‘bothered’ by the sounds. In the case of a bystander their passive regulation means they may be oblivious to sounds,” she says.

For this reason, simple design interventions - such as a chair with movement built in (e.g. a wiggly chair) - can help increase concentration because the sense of movement may be something an individual is seeking, she says.

From a design standpoint, this may be positively impacted by warmer colour lights for someone with a visual SPD, or utilising furniture clusters enabling alone areas for someone with a tactile SPD.
Joanne says designing for neurodiverse clients is a very comprehensive process – because there is no one-stop-shop solution.

Each and every person on the spectrum is an individual and some clients are more easily able to express their unique sensitivities. Others need help to be able to best select key objectives for the design.
“What makes it harder is that sometimes the client may not understand their own sensitivities, let alone be able to express them. This is often the case with Proprioception. It can often be a team approach to get the design right, sometimes even a little trial and error in the planning stages – especially with things such as colour.”

For this reason, blanket statements made in terms of designing for neurodiversity – such as “use soft blues or greens” or “stay away from bold reds” rarely work.

This is because they don’t take into consideration the individual’s relationship with colour.

“It may be that blue reminds you of something negative that has happened in the past – therefore it will never be a restful colour. A few years ago I decorated my daughter’s room in a gorgeous soft mint. What happened though, was that over the next couple of months, I watched her anxiety levels increase, her self confidence decrease and her insomnia worsen. This is what started my research into colour and how it actually plays out in our lives as opposed to taking for granted such blanket statements. Eventually, after working with my daughter and colour, I ended up re-decorating her room in a deep blood red. The result? Her self-confidence increased, her anxiety decreased and her sleep improved.”

Wayfinding - the information systems people use to guide themselves through a physical environment - is another challenge for many neurodiverse individuals and an important part of any design whether at home, at school, or in the wider built environment, Joanne says.

We all need to be able to know what to expect from a space, ideally before we enter it, because this allows us to determine how to interact with other people within that space.

“There are a number of different tools and design elements that can be used and adapted for the environment, including the layout of furniture within a space, a way to ‘pre-view’ the space and also being able to ascertain exits from the space in case of sensory overload.”

Joanne says what many people forget when designing spaces for those living with neurodiversity is that they are designing for real people.

“We each have our own aesthetics, styles, wants and needs. The difference between accessible design for autism and traditional design is that there may be important considerations for a client that are additional to a straightforward design, or that require a more comprehensive approach.

“An example of this is that we are not just looking at choosing a pendant light for its aesthetics in the space, we are also looking at the sensitivities a client may have to lighting. Those sensitivities are what will be the biggest driver behind the light selection.”

Joanne says that, as an element, fluorescent lighting not only has a huge impact for persons that may be hyper sensitive to light but also to those hyper sensitive to sound. For some people, the driving mechanism of such lights creates a sound and a flicker in the output of the light.

“For me, that sound buzzes in my head and can drive me to distraction. Other people can see the flicker. This not only affects individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), but also persons with an ABI and other neurological issues such as Epilepsy. LED lights have more recently replaced the old-school fluorescents and, whilst greatly reduced, there is still sound and flicker. I am now currently working with lighting that has a zero-flicker driver. This means that the additional stimulus to a neurodiverse person with those sensitivities has effectively been removed, or greatly reduced.”

When you have an ongoing sensory input from different senses, you end up with sensory overload – to which each individual responds differently, she says.

“It could end up in an outburst or a meltdown. It then takes time and sanctuary to reduce that overload to a point where you are able to re-emerge into a wider environment.”

Joanne, who works closely with Occupational Therapists when designing spaces for those living with neurodiversity, says it’s important the liveability of a space is also considered.

In designing with this in mind, Joanne says she considers the individual’s challenges and purpose of their spaces, along with their potential for unwanted distractions, sensory stimulation and way-finding.

When all is said and done spaces still need to be inspiring, engaging and also easy to navigate, she says.
“Beautiful spaces still need to make sense at the end of the day.”

For her part, Sonja says the importance of comfort for people’s well-being and their ability to function well should never be underestimated.

Inclusive design is good for us all, she says.

“The difference inclusive design can make is something we are measuring but logically, we know if comfort is increased people can be their best selves.”
The core principles of Inclusive Design
Inclusive – so everyone can use it safely, easily and with dignity.
Responsive – taking account of what people say they need and want.
Convenient – so everyone can use it without too much effort or separation.
Accommodating – for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility, ethnicity or circumstances.
Flexible – so different people can use it in different ways.
Welcoming – with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people.
Realistic – offering more than one solution to help balance everyone’s needs and recognising that one solution may not work for all.
Source: The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.