Designing Diverse Environments for Diverse Needs



Lance Whitehead, Managing Principal and K-12 Studio Leader | April 2022

[Many autistic people] argue that in highly social and unpredictable environments some of their differences may manifest as disabilities, while in more autism-friendly environments the disabilities can be minimized, allowing other differences to blossom as talents. The neurodiversity perspective reminds us that disability and even disorder may be about the person-environment fit.1 -Simon Baron-Cohen, Scientific American

The environments that individuals learn, work, heal, and live in greatly affects their success. Therefore, it is important that the physical environment be conducive to everyone–including those who are neurodivergent. So, what does a neurodiverse or autistic friendly environment take into account? Lance Whitehead, Principal and Studio Leader at Lavallee Brensinger Architects shares his top 6 design considerations for these environments:

1. Size: Designing diverse environments for diverse needs.

While some people love large and exciting areas like atriums and common rooms, some individuals on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information. Smaller rooms should also be available for those experiencing over-stimulation. This creates intimate environments that allow occupants to feel in control while also remaining integrated.

2. Acoustics: Auditory hypersensitivity & filtering out noise.

Many individuals are impacted by sound, but those with auditory hypersensitivity can experience and respond differently to sound. Noises generated within a building affect an individual at different levels and can highly impact those with neuro-challenges. This could be sounds generated by mechanical systems, old fluorescent light fixtures, foot traffic, vehicular traffic, and speech. A project’s site, rural v. urban, as well as the location within the building will have different considerations. Identifying sources of noise and how those sources are controlled or mitigated is crucial when designing for those with sound sensitivity.

3. Lighting: Natural light is key to so much that we do, whether it is learning, playing, or focusing. 

Lighting contributes to everything from energy levels to testing outcomes. In rooms with too little natural light, the users can experience building fatigue. Too much can be problematic for people with a heightened sensitivity to light. There are two ways to overcome this: control and moderation. We design spaces where users can control how much natural light and artificial light they have. We also design spaces with small areas of bright light and others with soft indirect light as appropriate to the environment we are designing for.

4. Complexity: Spaces offer functionality without distraction.

To prevent overstimulation, spaces should be designed to appear orderly and not cluttered. To accomplish this, the use of storage whether for a classroom, meeting room, or office must be considered. There are storage needs, materials to be posted or displayed, and resources needed to function. Everything should have a place. Often, the best way to evaluate this is to review the current spaces and evaluate what is needed for storage. It’s usually more than you think.

5. Interior Pattern and Colors: Larger facilities should have a myriad of interior concepts.

Bright and exciting spaces with ample amounts of patterns and color should be offset with spaces that offer users a sense of relaxation. Cool hues and earth tones accompanied by soft finishes that don’t employ complex patterns should be considered throughout a larger facility. Patterns can be created to directly support daily services needed to serve a neurodiverse population. A one-size fits all methodology doesn’t apply when designing for neurodiversity. Great designers can make these diverse spaces work well together in a cohesive approach to interior design.

6. Wayfinding: Everyone appreciates a building plan that allows users to intuitively find their way.

Autism is characterized by impairments in social reciprocity and communication. A common concurring condition for individuals with autism is anxiety, so we need to create a way to navigate buildings that does not solely depend on asking for directions or direct interaction. Clear signage is a must! Facilities should have both a logical intuit layout, but also employ well designed signage and room labels to direct occupants on their first visit. Image based signage with changes in color and patterns also offer clues for users to easily follow when navigating a building.

1Baron-Cohen, S. (2019, April 30). The Concept of Neurodiversity is Dividing the Autism Community. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from

About Lance Whitehead

Lance Whitehead, AIA, Managing Principal, K-12 Studio Leader

603.622.5450 Extension 147 |
Lance is a highly skilled Architect and Leader of our Education Design Group. He is passionate about designing spaces that are inclusive and multifunctional. Lance is exceptionally skilled at presenting and engaging communities and end-users in the design process, ensuring the final solution is creative, thoughtful, and reflective of a shared vision.