The Design Slate: Neurodiversity in Housing
Mike Perry: Good morning, I’m Mike Perry. I’m an architect and a principal here at Progressive AE and also lead the universal design consulting practice.
What that means is, we help organizations create environments that are truly inclusive, safer, and really just more accessible. And I think when we help organizations, it’s about helping them keep their promise that they stated in their mission. It’s about valuing the diversity of people as part of the human experience, and better representing the world.
I’d like to also introduce Choli Aronson. Choli is a project manager here at Progressive AE and is focusing on our housing practice. Choli, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Choli Aronson: I am an Architect. I have been in the field for 23 years and I am dyslexic, so one of the neurodivergent population. In fact, dyslexics make up about 10% of our population currently.
For a long time that was seen as a really difficult, challenging thing to be and be an architect. It’s been part of my lexicon throughout my career. I have a strong focus on housing, and I have been working in housing on and off throughout my entire career.
One of the interesting things and what drove my passion for housing is that my family moved a lot. I’ve lived in over 17 different houses, so you start to really be able to focus on the differences. In addition, my grandmother was in public housing on one side, and I had a wealthy side of the family. I’ve been able to experience the whole gamut of types of housing, which I think has really helped me be able to understand a lot of what’s out there, and a lot of how housing can be good, and how housing can be bad, and how it can affect every part of our life experience.
Mike Perry: Living in 17 different homes, and fast forwarding to today, you recently shared an example of some poor design in your own home. Maybe you could talk to us about that?
Choli Aronson: Sure. I first moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2017, and my faucet in my kitchen sink was a mystery to me. As a dyslexic, left and right have never been my strong suit, and this was one where you turned it left for hot or right for hot, I’m still not certain. And was the front of the faucet to the left hot, or was the back of the faucet to the left hot? I constantly had to ask my kids to help me figure out how to get hot water out of the faucet.
For three years I’m struggling with this sink and then, something else happens and we have to replace the faucet–all of a sudden it’s up for hot, down for cold. I’ve never had a problem again. It’s these little things that we don’t necessarily think about, but really was a daily struggle for me.
Even as an architect, I didn’t think about just replacing the faucet with something that made more sense, but it’s just a really easy, simple solution to help reduce that frustration, and make life easier. That’s what I think we need to focus on when we’re talking about designing for a neurodivergent population, but also just for everyone.
Sometimes we are designing things to look cool, to be cool, designing just for design’s sake and not necessarily thinking about the utility of some of the stuff that we design–the clarity of function of things that we design. When we come right down to it, especially when we’re designing homes, this is a place that should be tailored to the occupants. It should make you feel safe, make you feel comfortable. This is where you go to recharge. We don’t want you to have to struggle in your home.
Mike Perry: Yeah. We’ll get into some of those strategies because you’re already leaning in that direction. We know that between 17 and 20% of the population is considered neurodivergent and I think it’s important just to understand that neurodivergent doesn’t necessarily have to mean you’re on one end of the spectrum. We all perceive information differently, adding to our uniqueness and our diverse abilities. We need to think of it as more of an A to Z kind of a thing.
When we think about some of those strategies to assist and help a neurodivergent population in housing, let’s talk about some of those. One that comes right to the top is wayfinding.
Choli Aronson: One of the biggest things, especially in multi-family but it crosses a lot of different subjects–hotel design, hospital design–if you have a long corridor filled with doors and they all look the same, we’re relying on signage, right? Not everybody can process signage in the same way.
Not everybody is going to be able to deal with 20 doors in a row that all look the same and find their place. It can be very off-putting. It can be very confusing, and it’s not a safe place. Also dealing with our aging population, we have very similar concerns, right? So we want a lot of clarity in the way the building is set up, where we can see where we’re going, and the purpose of where we’re going.
If you enter your front door, I want to be able to very easily understand. I can see my path to the bathroom. I can see where I’m supposed to navigate through my building, through my apartment, through my spaces, just in general, to help us really understand where we are in space.
Sometimes that’s as simple as the third floor is more orange themed, the fourth floor is more blue themed, etc. If you’re in a 15-story building and every floor looks the same, it’s very easy for you to get turned around. And the further away from differentiation of our spaces we get, the more confusing that can be for a lot of people.
Mike Perry: Yeah. I think of other strategies all combined in there. Really what we’re talking about is multiple modes of communication, right? It’s just not a number on a plaque on a wall, “room 26,” but it could be an object. It could be a color. Lighting is really important. If you do have a long corridor, you don’t want bright spots, dark spots, bright spots, you want it to be well-lit corridor where people feel safe and they can easily see.
Choli Aronson: Right, but you also don’t want it to be well-lit in the way that it’s monotone, right? We want to create pockets. We have break points so that I can go, “okay, my door is the third door after the second seating area.” That can really help a lot of people with wayfinding. If I don’t have that breakout or I don’t have that window that helps with my location, it can be very difficult.
And part of that has to do with the way men and women find spaces differently. There are the jokes about how men and women navigate, “it’s the third left after the tree” versus “it’s on 42nd street.” But that goes through the entire population, and everybody way finds in a different way. We need to focus on providing a lot of choice, not just wayfinding numerically, but allowing for lots of different experiences and different ways to perceive our space.
Mike Perry: Yeah. And the architecture has a big role in that–creating transition zones, wider corridors at certain social areas, things like that.
Choli Aronson: Exactly. And that’s exactly what we need to do to make good architecture.
Mike Perry: So let’s go inside of the residence.
Choli Aronson: I’ve done a lot of interviews with various people, especially people who have children that are neurodivergent, because that’s really where we’re finding a lot of challenges, right?
Parents who are not neurodivergent who have neurodivergent children and they’re trying to adjust their residences, are one of the biggest things that I have encountered. The need for choice, right? The need for adaptability. So we’re looking at adjustable lighting levels, lighting colors, because we don’t know at what time in someone’s day certain things are going to trigger them.
Sometimes you need soft lighting. Sometimes you need more vibrant lighting. It really helps to focus you depending on that. Blocking you off from sounds, being able to have a space that is quiet and not being affected by the sounds of other people within your residence. That becomes a choice–I can choose to be in a quiet space, or I can choose to be a loud space.
Smell seems to be a very strong trigger, especially cooking smells and perfumes. And that’s something that I don’t think in architecture, we deal with a lot, but being able to go to a place that is well-ventilated, where we’re not smelling these things that potentially are overstimulating us.
That’s a really hard thing to do in multi-family. For a long time, you were smelling all of your neighbors smells, not just your cooking smells. We’re starting to get that ventilation better, but even still, it’s trying to figure out how to keep my onions cooking on a stove from making my children’s bedroom smell like onions. That’s a really challenging thing and we’re not even quite there yet, but that seems to be a really powerful trigger for a lot of people.
The other thing that I don’t think we’re doing very well yet, but we’re getting there, is durable surfaces. A lot of people when they get overstimulated will pick at things, will be mildly destructive. Not that they’re trying to, but they’re trying to find a different way to focus their stimulation, and picking apart carpet tufts is apparently a very problematic thing for kids with autism. Building more durable, more cleanable surfaces that are just easier for us to maintain is a really helpful thing for a lot of parents with neurodivergent children.
And then there’s other things, it depends on your who you are and how it is. But voice activation is something that we’re coming into a lot right now that everybody’s using, it’s really helpful. To be able to walk into a room and say, “Alexa, turn my lights to 50%.” I love it. And especially when you’re working with people who have different levels of potentially physical abilities or they’re so overstimulated that maybe they can’t get up to turn off the light fixture, but they can say, “calm setting,” And it readjusts everything to the calm setting, the sound and the lights and everything.
Mike Perry: That’s about giving choices. Again, I can either get up and do it or I can talk.
Choli Aronson: Exactly. And that is really it. It’s about being adjustable and giving choices. That ability to accommodate as many different people as we can. It benefits everybody–it’s great for me, it’s great for you, it’s great for my elderly mother who might be too tired to get up or having trouble getting up. There are very few downfalls of this kind of design, and I think that’s one of the big things that we need to remember is that the neurodivergent population isn’t broken.
This is a group of people like we said, 17 to 20% of the population, that’s a large group of people. There’s got to be some evolutionary advantage to this type of thinking. We’re really trying to help a very large segment of our population.
Mike Perry: Our research has shown us that, the very first thing to do is to not think of them or individuals on a spectrum as different. That’s really the first kind of underlying design principle.
I think also the use of low reflection surfaces.
Choli Aronson: And patterns. Patterns can be very overstimulating, especially if you’ve got a lot of different patterns juxtaposed, that can be very confusing. It can very much confuse wayfinding because the pattern can overtake your visual field.
A lot of it has to do with being able to adjust your stimulation level. Because sometimes you want a very active space and you need to have that ability to have an active space because that’s what that person needs at that time, and sometimes you need the calm space.
Mike Perry: You made me think of something, and I think this is really important– parents coming into a variety of different housing situations and having a child who’s considered neurodivergent at some level, that can be challenging, or not.
We just recently completed writing a chapter for the national inclusion project and it was about accessibility of equipment and facilities. But one of the strategies we came up with, I thought it was pretty interesting, was we provided a toy box. The toy box is intentionally made up of a variety of items that have different textures, different sounds, different colors, different objects, to do different things–whether they need a break or not.
Choli Aronson: Whether they’re overstimulated or under stimulated.
Mike Perry: I think that’s a simple strategy that’s no cost, that could be helpful.
Choli Aronson: We do have a lot of options for that also in the more architectural sense.
My house has all color-changing, LED lights throughout the house. These are consumer available products that anyone can buy and plug into a regular outlet. We found that color has a lot of effect on your stimulation level. Blues and greens really help bring you calmer sensations and help to bring that level down, whereas oranges and reds really help energize a room. And that’s a really simple thing that we can include architecturally and let that control be had for every space in a building.
It can also really help when we’re looking at days like today, where it’s gray outside and that different type of lighting can really affect mood. We can now create more of a sunlight effect on a gray day, or on a day where it gets dark early because we’re in the winter. And that also can really help keep people on track with a schedule.
One of the things that a lot of people that have a neurodivergence need is to structure their day in a very particular way that they’ve designed for themselves. That’s myself included. I need to have things organized my way, because honestly, if I try to use your organization system, I’m going to lose stuff left right and center. Part of that has to do with how I structure my day, and when it starts to get dark early, I start to lose that structure. Because my brain starts to think it’s eight o’clock as opposed to five o’clock. And so if I can adjust those light levels to be more of a daylight light level, It starts to reset my brain into what time it really is, as opposed to that “we’re going to sleep now” mindset.
Those are some things that can really help and are very architectural and very easy for us to include. It’s something that as architects, we don’t always think about because it’s not the “architecture,” it’s not the built portion of the building, but those are so important–the kinds of carpets we’re using, whether it’s sound absorbing, whether it’s not sound absorbing, the kinds of hard spaces versus soft spaces that we get as far as the reverberation in different rooms.
We want these very durable materials so we can easily clean them, but then they echo and that can be very off-putting, so we really just need to see. Resetting the way we’re thinking about things to really control acoustics and smell and lighting more so than we’ve ever done before.
The technology is there. That’s the wonderful thing is, we are finally at a level where the technology has gotten to a point where we have this ability to modify spaces on the fly based on what you need.
Mike Perry: Well thanks Choli, for sharing your story, it was really insightful. I know that going forward, we continue to build upon these strategies. As you said, we need to start thinking about things differently. We need to look at this through a different lens versus designing just for the able-bodied. It’s about opening it up, and I think that’s the value of getting a diverse set of stakeholders in the room and talking about the design of a project early on.
Choli Aronson: I think one of the big things that we really need to remember is it’s not about disabled or abled-bodied. Neurodivergence, as I tried to mention before, is something that definitely has a biological advantage. These are not people that are broken and need to be fixed.
This is something that has a different skill set than maybe we’re used to. We’re really finding that especially dyslexics and autistics have a much better pattern recognition ability than a lot of other people, and they’re a huge benefit. The Israeli special forces has a division that is all made up of autistic people because they do pattern recognition better than anyone else.
We’re not talking about trying to create spaces to enable someone or fix someone. We are helping create spaces for potentially the way we all will be in the future. This may be how the human race evolves. We don’t know. You never know what is going to be the most beneficial mental state in the future.
And honestly, being able to celebrate the diversity of how we all think, and designing spaces to allow us to all think the way that works best for us is only beneficial for society.
Mike Perry: That’s right. As I said earlier, I like to describe it as embracing everyone, all people as part of the the value in the human experience that we’re going through.
I know as Progressive AE we’ve really put a flag in the ground with universal design and it needs to be part of the thinking. Designing for diverse abilities really should be part of every project.
So with that, thanks again for sharing your story. And I look forward to spending more time with you in developing some of these strategies for our design teams to take forward
Choli Aronson: Excellent, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and this is something at Progressive and especially our housing team, we were very passionate about.