Illustration of people five people meeting in different ways to represent designing for neurodiversity
Illustration by Rose Wong

Embracing Differences: Understanding and Designing for Neurodiversity

METROPOLIS believes that when we are designing for neurodiversity, we are designing for everyone. Whether it be autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder, learning from different social and sensory experiences will create a more just built environment.

The importance of designing for neurodiversity has surged in recent years, often reshaping our approach to accessibility and inclusion. From the selection of materials, lighting, colors, and acoustics to the evolution of educational and workplace paradigms, designers and architects carry the responsibility of ensuring that everyone, regardless of neurological profile, is set up for success. In truly embracing neurodiversity—which includes a broad spectrum of neurological differences like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia—we underscore that these distinctions are not deficiencies but valuable variations of the human mind. Here, METROPOLIS explores the process of designing for neurodiversity and building a more welcoming world for all.


What is Neurodiversity?

What is Autism and how do we design for it?

What is Sensory Design?

How can we achieve Accessibility and Universal Design?


What is Neurodiversity?

Coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, the term “neurodiversity” challenges the notion of a singular norm and celebrates the natural variability in human neurology—including conditions like autism, ADHD and sensory processing disorders—as well as physical differences. As we become more educated on creating inclusive spaces that embrace all abilities, designers and architects are increasingly advocating for adjustments that improve focus, productivity, and comfort in settings like schools, workplaces, and beyond.

Learn more about neurodiversity and its crossover with architecture and design:


What is Autism and How Do We Design for It?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological development disorder that not only affects how people interact with others, but can also impact how they communicate and behave. About 1 in 54 children has ASD, and an even broader segment of the population identifies as neurodivergent. The A&D industry has responded, shifting away from designing for the “average” person and embracing a more universal approach that accommodates a greater range of thinking styles. Designers have also stepped up to the plate creating everything from colorful kitchen tools and human-centered spaces to inclusive nonprofits and evidence-based design guidelines to address built environments for those on the autism spectrum.

To learn more about how we can design for autism, check out the following articles below:


What is Sensory Design?

As mentioned in Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps’ book The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, which accompanied the eponymous Cooper Hewitt exhibit in 2018, sensory design addresses how people receive information and explore the world. It is manifested through the sense of touch, sound, smell and taste. Though the topic has only recently entered popular discourse, sensory design has expanded to include a mindset shift in how we can create spaces for all people, regardless of their sensory abilities. This, we found, helps better connect us to the material world and to each other.

For a closer look at sensory design, check out the following articles:

Sensory Design

How Can We Achieve Accessibility and Universal Design?

In the realm of design, accessibility entails creating products, devices, services or environments that can be used by as many people as possible. Though discussions around the topic have been ongoing for a while, a turning point in the conversation occurred when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. The landmark legislation not only outlawed discrimination based on disability but also required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and enforced accessibility requirements on public accommodations. More than 30 years later, great strides in accessibility for architecture and design have been made, but there’s still much work to be done—especially in the technological and the building space.

Read more about how we can design for accessibility and universal design with these articles.



By taking steps to foster independence and empower success for those with neurological differences, examples of truly accessible architecture continue to grow. Architects and designers are increasingly weighing concepts like acoustics, spatial sequences, and sensory zoning that encompass design elements like color, lighting, material choices, wayfinding, and technology. As the notion of designing for neurodiversity continues to evolve our ideas of inclusivity and accessibility, we can agree on this: There’s a growing aspiration for creating more inclusive environments where diverse minds and abilities harmoniously coexist.

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