Designing for Neurodiversity


Modern design goes beyond aesthetics; it embodies having a deep understanding of how our environments shape us.

“There’s never a moment in our lives where we are separate from an environment. This means our environment constantly affects us subconsciously, ” Bushra Hashim explained. “Being able to create spaces that help us work better, learn better and facilitate our well-being is a no-brainer. We all have sensory sensitivities and preferences, and if we design with diverse neurological experiences in mind, we will design better for everyone.”

This is why it is so essential to integrate accessibility seamlessly into the design process. It’s not about catering to a minority group (considering more than 1 in 3 people are affected by neurological conditions, making it the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide); it’s about utilizing intelligent and inclusive design.

And Bushra is someone who intimately understands this concept.

Multiple Lenses of Experience

Bushra’s resume is long: she is an architectural designer, sessional instructor, and accessibility consultant with interdisciplinary expertise in architecture, communications, and strategy. Committed to bridging gaps in design research, education, and practice, she focuses on creating mind-friendly environments from a neurodiversity perspective. Over the last seven years, she has provided neurodiversity design, training, and consulting services across architecture, policy, municipal planning, and occupational therapy sectors.

Bushra Hashim

A graduate of the University of Calgary, Bushra holds a Bachelor of Urban Studies and a Master of Architecture and is currently finishing a Master of Environmental Design. Her research merges lived experience with critical neuroscience, psychology, and architecture concepts to define evidence-based solutions to mind-friendly environments. She recently developed and taught Canada’s first graduate-level course on Neurodiversity and Design at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Additionally, she contributed her knowledge as a member of the technical committee developing the newly-released Version 4 of the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) Rating Survey. This updated version introduces a new category focused on designing mind-friendly spaces, enhancing the overall assessment process for meaningful accessibility in sites.

Bushra’s wealth of acquired experience intertwines with her lived experience to inform her expertise on accessible environments. “It’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment when I became interested in accessibility because negotiating access is a constant as a woman of colour,” she said. “But the reality hit home when, like many women, I was diagnosed as neurodivergent well into my adulthood.”

Bushra’s diagnosis has provided her with an additional lens through which to view the built environment.

“For me, it became clear that architecture isn’t just about buildings; it’s a service industry, one that’s outward-facing and future-focused on the evolving human condition,” she said. “We’re dwelling, living, working, and playing in the spaces we create, so it’s crucial we understand how our environment affects us neurologically, and design better spaces for the human experiences that ramps and designated parking stalls don’t address—things like how it feels to move through a supportive space, its influence on our productivity and memory, or how it impacts our mental well-being.”

Beyond acknowledging neurodiversity – the natural variation in how our brains work – she also integrates gendered and cultural design into her work.

“A great example of gendered spaces is alleys. Google Maps will often route a path through an alley, but that’s not a place many women will want to go due to safety concerns,” she added. “Another example: for prayer times, practicing Muslims need to be able to excuse themselves to go to a quiet space during the day in the workplace. As you can see, this goes beyond the physical environment. The social and cultural environments also play a huge role in this invisible narrative and our understanding of spaces of inclusion.”

The Issues of Invisibility in Inclusive Design

One of the most significant barriers to embracing neurodiversity is underestimating ability. When we assume someone’s abilities or limitations, we often create misconceptions reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas. These misconceptions can fuel discrimination, prejudice, and social exclusion, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization.

In the design of our environments, this barrier is compounded by a fixation on the visible dimensions of design, due mainly to limited awareness of the invisible sensory and cognitive dimensions. This can result in exclusive, often patronizing design, that perpetuates the absence of diverse neurological experiences in our workplaces, schools, and public spaces, added Bushra.

She provides some examples and solutions:

Barrier – One-size-fits-all solutions: Relying exclusively on standardized or one-size-fits-all solutions to inclusive design can inadvertently perpetuate exclusive design that overlooks crucial variations in sensory preferences and sensitivities. For example, designing a workplace with exclusively bright lighting to accommodate individuals with visual impairments may inadvertently create discomfort or sensory overload for those with sensory sensitivities to light.

Solution – Provide variety, choice, and control: Design variety across spaces, choice in use and levels of participation, and control through customizable features to balance a spectrum of user experiences. This can include sensory zoning with lighting, sounds, and textures ranging from soothing to stimulating, different furniture options, and adjustable lighting and temperature controls.

Barrier – One-dimensional communication: Focusing solely on one sensory experience (such as visual needs) can neglect other equally critical sensory considerations. For example, a new classroom with proper visual wayfinding cues might overlook the need to minimize noise distractions and acoustic treatments for auditory wayfinding.

Solution – Design multisensory environments: Design spaces that engage multiple senses to communicate similar information. Incorporating tactile floor markings, auditory directional/landmarking prompts, and situated olfactory stimuli alongside visual wayfinding cues ensures that individuals with diverse sensory preferences and needs can effectively navigate and engage with their surroundings.

Barrier—Excessive safety features limiting independence: Overt safety features can inadvertently signal a lack of trust in individuals’ abilities and restrict autonomy. For example, supportive living residents’ inability to move freely or without staff permission impedes their ability to engage in activities of daily living independently and lowers their perceived quality of life.

Solution – Balance safety with natural surveillance: Use subtle features to ensure safety features are present but not intrusive, such as rounded furniture and wall corners, shock-absorbent floor and wall assemblies, smart contrasts in materials, layouts with clear sightlines, and defined safe zones that can be accessed freely with simple, safe checkpoints, rather than locked doors or gates.

The Practical Application of Knowledge

Advancements in accessibility are increasing as more and more organizations and communities become aware of its need. Businesses are now leveraging accessibility as a competitive edge to tap into the expanding market of 1 in 4 Canadians with disabilities, projected to reach 151 billion of the total consumer market by 2030. And for this reason, it’s essential to recognize that accessibility in the built environment is not a destination – it’s a journey that requires starting incremental action and a culture of continuous improvement.

Bushra Hashim

“Accessibility isn’t necessarily a goal that can be met because our understanding of people and ability will continue to shift as new developments are made in design, science and technology. “It’s just one of those things that has to remain in a cycle of improvement, and Version 4 of RHFAC is part of that cycle of improvement.”

The inclusion of neurodiversity in accessibility isn’t a separate consideration. It’s one that fits seamlessly into the bigger picture of universal design benefiting many, such as curb cuts and automatic door openers.

“Neurodiversity is not a niche concern,” emphasized Bushra. “Mind-friendly design is a strategy that enhances the functionality and accessibility of environments for everybody in ways that many could not even conceive of or design until these spaces are used differently. You’ll experience disability, temporary and permanent, at some point in your life. Many in the design space already have some personal experience with access, but the education that comes with RHFAC training allows people to understand it – really get it – before they experience it.”

To learn more about the Rick Hansen Foundation’s accessibility and inclusion training options visit www.RickHansen.com/Courses

 

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.