Neurodiversity and Accessibility: insights from NeuroArchitecture

By Andréa de Paiva & Márcia Galvão (@arquiautismo)

In the context of architecture and urbanism, discussions about accessibility of spaces are common. Ramps, tactile floors and special bathrooms are some of the characteristics that must be present to make the environment accessible to someone who has a mobility or visual impairment, for example. But have you ever stopped to think about other difficulties that different people may have in their relationship with the environment? Physical disabilities that impair mobility or deficiencies related to sensory organs such as the eyes or ears are not the only ones that can affect users' experience in the environment: variations in the functioning of brain machinery also have great potential. In today's article, we will discuss some of the intersections between studies on neurodiversities and NeuroArchitecture.

Neurodiversity and Accessibility: insights from NeuroArchitecture
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The issue of accessibility in architecture, urbanism and design is a major challenge. This is for a number of reasons. First of all, there are many different types of disabilities, ranging from physical, visual, hearing, intellectual, psychosocial and multiple disabilities, which are the combination of two or more disabilities. According to the Brazilian Law for Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities "persons with disabilities are those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with one or more barriers, may obstruct their full and effective participation in society on equal terms with other people" [1]. Grouping together the different types of disabilities makes it difficult to understand the needs of each group of users with different disabilities, since there are many categories and each one has specific needs. It is always possible to carry out empathy exercises such as interviews and user's journey observation to better understand the experience of distinct groups in the environment. But, given the complexity of this theme, interviews and observation may not be enough for us to understand in depth the relationship of some users with the environment. Therefore, studying neurodiversity is important to create more inclusive spaces. One of the biggest challenges to create more accessible spaces is to understand the specific needs of people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, whose brains do not fit typical patterns of functioning (hence the use of the term neurodiversity). Such deficiencies, in some cases, may be more difficult to detect and individuals who present them may have needs in relation to the environment that are less objective than those of someone with a physical need, for example. In an exercise of observing the user's journey, it is clear that a wheelchair user has stopped accessing a certain space due to the absence of ramps or elevators to overcome a gap. In a similar exercise with a person with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), this observation is no longer so evident, as such needs are more difficult to detect.

But, after all, what characteristics are these that can affect the experience of individuals in the environment so intensely, to the point of impairing the accessibility of some groups of users? The answer to this question is quite extensive and complex, but we have selected an element here to discuss in this article: sensory reactivity.

Sensory processing is the basis for adapting our behavior to the conditions in the environment. It is our ability to capture information from the environment through the senses, organize and interpret them and, finally, give a meaningful answer. The inadequacy of this processing can cause some dysfunctions. Among them, the difficulty with sensory reactivity, which is the reaction/response to sensory experiences. That is, when the processing of information brought by the senses does not happen properly, reactions to such stimuli are impaired. This affects not only the user's behavior, but their experience as a whole [2] [3].

Such inadequacies of sensory reactivity are diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder [4]. They are divided into two groups: hyper-reactivity, which is the excessive reaction to certain sensory information in the environment; and hyporeactivity, which is the poor (or absent) reaction to certain sensory information [3] [4]. It is worth noting that both can happen with each of the different sensory systems. We also need to keep in mind that the sensory systems are not limited to the 5 classic senses, (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste). The vestibular system (which involves balance), the interoceptive (which involves internal bodily sensations) and the proprioceptive (which involves the perception of the body's spatial location, such as its position and orientation, the force exerted by the muscles and the position of each part of the body in relation to the others), are also sensory systems that can be affected by hyper and hyporeactivity.

As already mentioned, hyperreactivity can be related to each of the different sensory systems. In the case of the tactile system, the individual may be uncomfortable with certain textures, fabrics, clothing tags or react intensely in response to the touch of people, lines and crowds. In the vestibular system, the hyperactive individual may experience gravitational insecurity and nausea when in motion. Hyper-reactivity in the auditory system can result in extreme reactions to certain noises. In the olfactory system, in turn, individuals avoid places with strong smells. Hyper-reactivity in the case of the visual system results in reactions to excess light stimulation or distraction with patterns, visual pollution and even with movement. In the proprioceptive system, individuals may be uncomfortable with some body positions and find it difficult to manipulate small objects [6]. As in the case of hyper-reactivity, hypo-reactivity can also be related to different sensory systems. In the tactile system, individuals can touch people unnecessarily, in addition to having a high tolerance for pain and temperature (which can be quite dangerous for their safety!). In the auditory system, individuals with hypo-reactivity often do not respond when called, they like loud and strange noises, as well as making noises. In the visual system, they ignore people in the environment, they see only the outline of some objects, they like sunlight and bright colors. In the case of the vestibular system, hypo-reactivity can cause individuals to move unnecessarily, presenting repetitive movements and enjoying rotating in circles or any task that involves movement. In the olfactory system, it is common to put objects in the mouth and look for strong smells. In the proprioceptive, they have difficulty locating their position in space and often touch other people [6].

Thus, stimuli that can go almost unnoticed by a neurotypic person, can generate disturbance and discomfort in individuals who have hyper-reactivity or else a fascination in individuals with hypo-reactivity. Neither of these situations is ideal since both interfere with the effective participation in activities of daily life. In addition, they can trigger an emotional disorganization and culminate in behaviors of isolation, irritability, restlessness and inattention [2]. What can we do to make our spaces more accessible? Architectural solutions that take users' sensory processing into account have proven successful. A great example is the work developed by architect Magda Mostafá, who created the first evidence-based design criteria index to be applied in environments built for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASPECTSS ™ Design Index). It consists of a set of guidelines based on 7 criteria: acoustics, spatial sequencing, escape spaces, compartmentalization, transitions, sensory zoning and security [5]. An information that is worth highlighting is that when creating spaces taking into account the experience of users with variations in sensory reactivity, this does not harm the experience of other (neurotypical) users in the space. That is, it is possible to create more inclusive environments that provide appropriate experiences for different groups of users, not favoring only some groups and excluding others. But, for that, it is necessary to have a systemic view of the project, considering not only each environment, but how they are connected and how the whole set affects the users' experience. But that will be a topic for an upcoming article! The relationship between NeuroArchitecture and neurodiversity is quite broad and does not end with what we have discussed so far. Therefore, soon we will return to analyze other issues related to the theme and that can help architects and designers to face this challenge!

Would you like to know more about the subject? Follow us on Facebook or Instagram! =)


[1] Brasil, Lei Nº 13.146, DE 6 DE JULHO DE 2015 Art. 2º.

[2] Ayres, J. (2005) Sensory Integration and the Child – understanding hidden sensory challenges. WPS Publish

[3] Posar, A.; Visconti, P. (2018) Alterações sensoriais em crianças com transtorno do espectro do autismo. J. Pediatr. (Rio J.), Porto Alegre , v. 94, n. 4, p. 342-350

[4] Arlington, V.A. (2013) Manual Diagnóstico e Estatístico de Transtornos Mentais - DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

[5] Mostafa, M. ASPECTSS™ Design Index

[6] Ghaines, K. (2016) Designing for autism spectrum disorders / Kristi Gaines, Angela Bourne, Michelle Pearson an Mesha Kleibrink. New York, Routledge.

The authors: To learn more about Andréa de Paiva, click here.

Invited author: Márcia Galvão (@arquiautismo)

Márcia Galvão is Specialist Architect in Environment Friendly for Autism | Graduated in Architecture and Urbanism from Unime-BA and in Social Communication from UCSAL-BA | Postgraduate in Neuroscience and Behavior - PUC-RS | Graduate Student in Neuroscience applied to Architecture - IPOG | Graduate Student in ABA Intervention for Autism and Intellectual Disability - CBI of Miami | Complete Training in Neuroarchitecture - Neuroarq Academy | Neuroscience for All Course - Carla Tieppo | Neuroscience Applied to Architecture Course - Miriam Runge | Neuroscience and Architecture Course - Andrea de Paiva | Early Start Denver Model Course - Mind Institute | Sensory Integration Course - CBI of Miami | Basic Concepts for Autism Course TEACCH Program - 4Tea Educacional | Volunteer Architect at AMA-BA | Creator of Arquiautismo |