Araceli Camargo, lab director at The Centric Lab, highlights the significance of neurodiversity in the workplace ahead of this year’s British Council for Offices Annual Conference in Berlin (23-25 May, follow #BCOconference on Twitter for live PW coverage).

Araceli Camargo Centric Lab

Araceli Camargo

Neurodiversity is a movement that emerged from the work of Judy Singer, a sociologist and a person on the autistic spectrum. She proposed that people who are “neurologically different represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class, gender, and race.” Whilst the movement includes those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder, and tourette syndrome, the prominent focus in terms advocacy is on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is clinically classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder with an estimated 1% of prevalence across most populations. The core symptoms include differences in social communication, the presence of restricted and repetitive interests or activities, and sensory anomalies.

It is important to note that ASD varies widely from person to person, as every individual has specific comorbidities, environmental influences, and predilections. Therefore, it is crucial that organisations see them as individuals rather than in socio-cultural stereotypes.

The neurodiverse movement seeks to inform the general public about what it is like living with a neurodevelopmental disorder. With the purpose of creating better social support mechanisms, changing cultural perceptions, and generating more empathy amongst those around them and those who treat them. More recently the movement has focused on creating more employment opportunities as well as advocating for workspace environments to be more responsive to their needs.

What does the neurodiversity movement mean for workspace environments and more specifically for building owners? More companies are turning their attention and employment strategies towards hiring people with ASD, ranging from media companies, technology firms, to government. Companies like SAP are purposefully creating hiring programmes to attract and retain workers on the autism spectrum, SAP’s goal is for at least 1% of their workforce to be ASD. This is an unprecedented and positive change to the workforce catalysed by the need to hire the very best talent to solve ever rising complex problems. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity for society to be more forward thinking about the wide range of human intellect and capacity. Everyone, who is willing to work, should have an opportunity to do so.

What does the neurodiversity movement mean for workspace environments?

Source: Central Working, Victoria

If companies are making a determined effort to hire people who are non-normative, then workspace environments will need to change to support the needs of this new workforce. There are two reasons building owners will need to adapt. The first is from a health perspective, buildings should contribute to a person’s wellbeing, which includes supporting diverse mental needs. This translates as minimising environmental stressors, which could potentially affect focus, concentration, and overall work performance. The second is to sustain a competitive edge. HR executives have started to use workspace environments as a recruitment and retention tool, therefore building owners need to understand how this plays a role in the amenities they offer potential new occupiers.

More scientific approach

When catering for a demographic like those with ASD, the industry will need to employ a more scientific and strategic approach to ensure that workspaces are fit for purpose. There are three particular physical elements to focus on, which will provide the neurodiverse community with a physical environment that is welcoming, better for their wellbeing, and enabling of the cognitive capacity.

The first to consider how different light intensities affect certain cognitive aspects of people with ASD, to help create the right visual comfort for a given task. The second is noise, some people with ASD find certain types of noise as points of stress, which in turn could have an effect on their symptomatology and ability to sustain focus on a task. Finally, there is wayfinding to consider. Recent studies have indicated that people with ASD differ in their navigation strategies. This means building providers and designers should consider these differences when deciding wayfinding strategies for a workspace to avoid disorientation and feelings of stress or anxiety.

We now have the technology and science available to create work environments that are adaptable, functional and supportive to a wide range of people. We should strip the old mentality that buildings should run at the lowest cost possible and consider how a building enables and supports people.

Find out more about the topic of neuodiversity in the workplace in Camargo’s session at this year’s British Council for Offices Annual Conference in Berlin, 23-25 May.