Jonah Schatz first became interested in sensory design working as a summer camp counselor for people with cognitive disabilities. He further explored the topic in architecture school while continuing to work with this population. Schatz has explored the design of sensory environments that accommodate a wide range of needs and preferences.
“Individuals with developmental and sensory disabilities make up a significant and vulnerable population that most spaces don’t cater to,” Schatz says. “We have building codes that protect people with disabilities we can see, but we lack the same codified protection for people whose disabilities we can’t see.”
Schatz’s goal is to develop a building code for cognitive and neurological disabilities that is equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“From an equity perspective, we’re not truly practicing diversity in design unless we’re thinking about diverse physical and mental abilities,” he explains.
Neurodiversity—as the name suggests—considers varied social, emotional and other mental abilities often used to define the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other neurological disabilities. These diagnoses are characterized by specific sensitivities and preferences toward sensory environments, among other variables.
With diagnosis rates of these disorders rising each year, more people are realizing the need for inclusive, neurodiverse spaces. Architecture and planning have a long way to catch up, but Schatz believes we’re uniquely positioned to help solve the problem.
By engaging users with diverse sensory abilities, as well as their families and caregivers, throughout the design process, we have an opportunity to improve spaces of all types, for all people.
A great deal of research has been done to link space design—including factors such as light, noise and scale—and occupant performance. Those insights should be leveraged in our work to design better spaces.
“The challenge is that what’s uncomfortable for one person might be exactly what another needs to succeed,” Schatz says, acknowledging the difficulty of codifying a singular approach to designing inclusive sensory environments.
“We all react to the same stimuli—spaces may be too loud, too quiet, too bright, too dark, too hot, too cold or generally uncomfortable. People with sensory disabilities may have lower thresholds for these inputs, causing mild to extreme distress,” he says. “The framework of neurodiversity acknowledges and celebrates this variety of experience.”
Ultimately, designing for neurodiversity is not a mere act of inclusion, it’s simply better design.
Here, Schatz offers seven considerations for designing sensory environments based on his own experience and research:
- Self-regulation: The ultimate goal of designing for individuals with developmental disabilities should be to foster and support self-regulation. Spaces dedicated to self-regulation can be quiet rooms or zones within a space, or separate sensory rooms, de-escalation rooms or wellness rooms. But our design and programming should holistically reinforce this agenda without defaulting to relegating a population to separate spaces.
- Legibility and routine: Predictable cues and interactions are important for individuals with sensory disabilities. Clear circulation and simple planning promote the formation of routines while reducing dependence on visual aids (although visual aids can be critical reinforcements for some people). Examples of visual aids include wayfinding markers, symbols in place of words and digital clocks instead of analog. Reduction in detail, such as solid colors and textures instead of complex patterning, can also reduce unwanted stimulation and obsessive behavior.
- Security: For individuals with sensory disabilities, it’s often the sense of being observed that provides security and avoids feelings of isolation or exclusion, even in independent work areas. But it requires a balance between supervision and independence. Subtle yet defined physical boundaries, like a cubicle or phone room in an open office or an enclosed outdoor courtyard, can create that sense of safety.
- Play: In many observations of primary schools, it’s noted that the role of the playground in early childhood development is equally as important as the classroom curriculum. More broadly applied, the social skills and interactions we learn through safe and appropriate play are critical to our identities. It’s important that designers pay equal attention to informal spaces where individual expression and exploration are not only permitted but encouraged. It can be as simple as a sculpture, light display or another visual stimulus that users can opt into.
- Circulation and transitions: Neurotypical people often take this one for granted, as they enter buildings or move between rooms without much thought. But individuals with sensory disabilities often require more intentional preparation when transitioning between two environments. We can carefully map these movements and build in extra room to limit unwanted or unexpected interactions and provide space for rest and preparation. Something as simple as rounding the corners in hallways provides greater visibility to see someone coming. Often, the main entry of a building can be overstimulating. Here we should consider alternative access points to accommodate a broad spectrum of sensory needs—like individuals with physical handicaps have their own access points.
- Flexibility and choice: Flexibility doesn’t just apply to the use or programming of a space; it also applies to sensory environments. Spaces should be flexible enough to respond to a wide range of needs. Providing some level of choice or control of environmental factors—such as smart lighting, flexible seating or even individual climate control—will enable occupants with sensory disabilities to regulate their comfort in real time as needs change, especially in school or other settings where maintained focus is expected.
- Proxemics over ergonomics: While ergonomics deals with arranging things to increase efficiency of interaction, proxemics focuses on our relationship with space—how we use it and how it contributes to individual comfort. Individuals with sensory disabilities may specifically benefit from more “personal space.” In most cases, this perspective demands more square feet than what is considered efficient, posing challenges that projects will have to navigate. However, there is precedent for this. Recent trends in “creative office space” have proven that investing in employee comfort can directly improve performance. It’s also the right thing to do. The way each of us interacts with our environment should be accommodated, encouraged and celebrated. We all deserve spaces where we can perform our best.
Jonah Schatz is an architectural designer based in our New York office who is passionate about inclusive design.