neurodiversity in higher education
2 May, 2024
Designing for neurodiversity in higher education
Understanding how to design for neurodiversity in higher education spaces.

Creating inclusive learning spaces is a priority for universities, and the more we understand about the different ways in which people think, operate, and understand information, the more we’re able to create environments that attract and nurture students, enabling them to enjoy their experience and pursue successful careers. 

What is neurodiversity?

Depending on which study you look at, it’s estimated that between 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse. It’s an umbrella term that includes, but isn’t limited to ADHD, autism, DCD, and dyslexia. The term references the range of differences in individual brain function and consequent behavioural traits. If someone is neurodivergent, they are considered to be outside the ‘normal’ (majority) range of function in some way, whereas someone within the ‘normal’ spectrum is described as neurotypical.

How neurodiversity presents

A study reported by the National Institutes of Health writes that in terms of how this presents itself functionally:

In terms of challenges:

“executive functions are a common psychological complaint, resulting in difficulties with short-term and working memory, attention regulation, planning, prioritising, organisation and time management. Self-regulation of work performance is required in many modern employment contexts and therefore these issues present as the most disabling for individuals.”

In terms of strengths:

“There is also commonality among strengths, many related to higher order cognitive functioning reliant on comprehension and creativity.”

This is a good starting point for considering how to provide support in terms of design, although the study highlights that historic research bias has led to a focus on challenges over strengths in a reductive approach to neuropsychology.

How we think about neurodiversity

How we think about neurodiversity is changing. In part that’s because our understanding is evolving, and perhaps it’s also because our changing world provides more opportunities to embrace different skills as well as thinking and doing things in different ways.

It also helps, as with all things, that with improved diagnostics and more communication, more celebrities have spoken about their own neurodiverse identifications. Steve Jobs was neurodivergent, Tim Burton has said he believes he has Asperger’s (undiagnosed), and Greta Thunberg has been open about her autism, as has Billie Eilish.

Autistic comedian, Fern Brady summed it up succinctly when she said: “Neurotypical people can’t get the balance right. It’s always either a tragedy or you have to say it’s a superpower, and I wish people just viewed autism with a bit more neutrality because you need to see it as a different operating system like iPhones versus Androids.”

Writing in Forbes, Co-Founder and Chief Solution Architect at PractiTest-Test Management, Joel Montvelisky, wrote about his experience with neurodiversity and how the way we approach it allows us all to maximise the advantages of different ways of thinking.

He writes: “I was lucky myself, struggling through high school and college and achieving good grades only as a result of finding study partners who literally forced me to sit and study. Then I landed jobs at startup companies that not only encouraged people to shift tasks constantly but where the ability to do this was a competitive advantage. And finally, I learned that I have suffered all my life from serious ADHD only when doctors diagnosed my son with the same when he was seven.  But in fact, I want to claim that luck’s role in this should and can be minimised tremendously by understanding more about neurodiversity and being more inclusive in our workplaces.”

neurodiversity in higher education

Why is it important to design neuro-inclusive education spaces?

There are three reasons it’s important to design neuro-inclusive education spaces:

  1. It’s ethically and practically the right thing to do.
  2. It’s beneficial for all to create environments where everyone can thrive.
  3. There’s no downside.

One of the great things about designing for neurodiversity is that it doesn’t negatively impact anyone. In fact, from a design perspective, most of the adjustments for neurodiversity improve the experience for everyone. With neuro-inclusive design you’re not only embracing that 20% – but you’re also actually increasing your environment’s accessibility to encompass, if not 100% of people then certainly 20% more than you started with. That’s both morally and commercially good sense.

The benefits for universities and colleges

Designing neuro-inclusive spaces for work and education offers a wealth of benefits, some more tangible than others, in universities and colleges as well as workplace environments.

For example, it can:

  • Improve productivity and learning outcomes
  • Improve student mental health and wellbeing 
  • Contribute to a culture of acceptance, respect and equality as well
  • Create a better landscape for learning for all, ultimately attracting more students
  • Identify and develop untapped potential in students
  • Support and nurture under-represented talent
  • Create a ‘skills-first’ culture
  • Reduce absenteeism
neurodiversity in higher education

Key features of neuro-inclusive design in education spaces

In general, neuro-inclusive design is about focusing on the user experience and providing adaptability in environments so that they can be adjusted for individual needs. Much like you might accommodate different physical abilities, considering various cognitive and neurological abilities in everything from your website and your technology to the scope, signage, lighting, and organisation of your learning and recreational environments is important.

Barriers to neuro-inclusivity

In terms of physical space alone, barriers to inclusion often hinge on sensory sensitivities. For example:

  • Sound: Can make it difficult to concentrate or be overwhelming.
  • Lighting: Some people are more sensitive to light.
  • Movement: The ability to move around can help some people with attention disorders to focus.
  • Patterns: Busy, repetitive patterns can cause some people to have migraines or impact balance.
  • Smells: For some, smells can be overwhelming.
  • Temperature: Sensitivity to hot and cold is also common.

Equally, sometimes these things are intermittently challenging for individuals.

Features of neuro-inclusive design

  • Sensory zoning: Creating different zones within the learning environment so people with different needs can find the right space to support them empowers the individual and offers support. For example, hypersensitive people may want a calm, quiet, neutral space that isn’t overcrowded, while a hyposensitive person may like busy environments with bright colours and noise.
  • Create different spaces: By offering a variety of spaces in the learning environment, from collaborating working areas to lounge space, social spaces, quiet working, individual pods, and desk space, you enable choice, control, flexibility and movement. This helps everyone to find the right space to suit the task at hand as well as supporting individual needs at different times.
  • Acoustics: Implement appropriate acoustic design to minimise distractions, enhance communication and improve overall concentration and learning outcomes.
  • Signage and wayfinding: Use clear and concise instructions and consider colour contrast and font size (perhaps supplemented with images or graphics) and how they impact readability for different neurological profiles. Signage and wayfinding systems are important for helping people to understand not only where to go but how to use different areas of your space independently. For example, different sensory requirements can help (visual, auditory and tactile).
  • Lighting and visual distractions: Busy patterns and cluttered environments as well as lighting quality and levels can impact everyone’s ability to concentrate, or even cause headaches and stress. Some people find these things more distracting than others, so opportunities to reduce glare or adjust lighting in whole areas as well as localised spaces (individual desks) can improve inclusivity.
  • Biophilia: Introducing plants into spaces has become a well known practice for reducing anxiety and improving well-being. Choose plants without strong scents and with flowing shapes. Equally, using natural finishes like wood and colours that occur in nature can improve mental wellbeing.
  • Sensory feedback: The materials that you choose in a space can also have an impact on general discomfort or glare. For example, shiny floors can reflect overhead lights, lots of different materials can contribute to sensory overload. Considering the flow of the space and opting for soft, smooth textures can help support different neurodivergent needs.

The future of education

These are just a few of the ways in which you can help to design a neuro-inclusive education or university environment. At Maris we work with universities across the UK to cultivate immersive learning experiences and create environments that support the future of education.

We work closely with universities and colleges to co-create educational spaces that support neurodiversity and encourage interactivity, understanding that the diverse requirements of staff and students encompass not only learning and studying but also relaxation and mental wellbeing.

Want to design a neuro-inclusive education environment?

Speak to the team at Maris