Spring 2024 | Article 02/04

Neurodiversity: designing workplaces for inclusion

In recent years, many companies–aware that having a spectrum of different thinking styles within an organization leads to innovation–have launched efforts to hire neurodiverse employees and make the workplace more inclusive of their needs. Microsoft, J.P. Morgan Chase, and EY are among those that reported their neurodiverse hiring programs led to productivity gains, improvements in work quality, and more, according to Harvard Business Review.

Neurodivergents, who represent one in seven people worldwide, are individuals and not monoliths. There is a common saying in the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community that conveys this: “If you know one Autistic person, you know...one Autistic person.” In other words, ASD presents itself in these individuals in incredibly diverse ways. People are unique individuals who have different skills, abilities, and needs, which should be considered. However, there are some common threads when designing workplaces to be more inclusive of neurodiversity, including creating respite areas where people can retreat when they are overstimulated.
Neurodiversity (and, to refer to one person, Neurodivergent) is a non-medical term coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer to describe neurological differences in thinking, learning, and behavior when compared to a conventional baseline. Singer aimed to remove the language of deficit and ‘disorder’ (i.e., Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in favor of promoting the inclusion of what she called “neurological minorities.”

Sensory inclusion

Most people have preferences when it comes to the senses. But for most neurodiverse people, it is much deeper than a preference. Some may be entirely unable to filter out unimportant sensory inputs like the coworker’s loud phone conversation on the other side of the room. These intrusions may feel like nails on a chalkboard. They drain focus and feel overwhelming and overstimulating. An office is not inclusive without accounting for spaces that provide choices for different working environments.


Many neurodiverse people find certain types of lighting grating and overpowering. Overhead lighting is the worst offender. The best scenario: Design an office to emphasize natural light, augmented by task and table lamps. In accordance with WELL and LEED standards, we capture as much natural daylight as possible in our offices. We also provide interior workspaces for those with light sensitivity. But you don’t have to wait until you design a new office to improve your lighting. Replacing fluorescent bulbs with softer options with less blue light and adding more adjustable lighting levels with lamps make a huge difference.

Smell and taste

Neurodivergent populations may experience the smells, textures, and tastes of foods differently than a conventional baseline. Design or lease workspaces near a variety of food options and include alternate settings for consuming them. Communal dining areas should be separated from the spaces where employees work so the smells don’t linger in workspaces. Include effective HVAC systems that filter, exhaust, and circulate air efficiently to lessen odors further. In the Avison Young Toronto Office, we isolated the food preparation area with separate exhaust fans from the areas where people work.


Offer a variety of fabric choices for furniture in social areas. Uncomfortable textures, like scratchy wool, can be distracting, uncomfortable, or even distressing. Use soft textures and comforting fabrics, particularly in spaces designed for respite. Be sure to include your neurodiverse employees in the material selection process instead of simply guessing which fabrics will have the broadest appeal.


Sound management is arguably the most critical for neurodiverse people and the most likely to cause that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling of distress. Employ sound-dampening techniques liberally. Install soft-close mechanisms on cabinets, drawers, and filing systems. Use carpeting and other acoustic treatments that reduce and absorb the intensity of sudden jarring noises. Include sound isolation booths around workstations. Implement sound masking, an effective tool used by acoustical engineers to even out sounds, making conversations in adjoining spaces inaudible. This can enhance acoustical treatments on walls, floors, and light fixtures.

Focus spaces

Integrate quiet zones within the workplace to provide a sanctuary for employees who need silence and solitude to focus or decompress, as people with ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity often do. Zone individual workspaces strategically to ensure a clear separation from the more social areas of the office. Include a variety of seating options that cater to different needs. Steelcase's Brody WorkLounge, for example, creates a shelter from visual distractions. Install enclosed spaces for those requiring isolation and create zones that have workstations with higher panels for greater sound absorption and added privacy. These features will also help neurotypical employees who have heads-down work. Focus spaces don’t always have to be walled in. The goal is not to separate neurodivergent individuals but to include and support them within the fabric of the office.
The goal is not to separate neurodivergent individuals but to include and support them within the fabric of the office.

Avison Young's Toronto Office

Retreats, by design

The hustle and bustle of the workplace can overwhelm neurodiverse people with sensory overload. The best way to address this: Design relaxing nooks and decompression spaces. Here are some considerations when designing wellness spaces:


Opt for a discrete, out-of-the-way location, ensuring privacy and a judgment-free zone for employees seeking a moment of tranquility.


Include a recliner at the very least. Optimally, add a longer sofa or bench, space for lying down, and a small table for personal items.

Lighting and ambiance

Employ indirect lighting sources with complete control over brightness. Use muted, calming color palettes for walls and simple yet serene artwork.


Ensure these spaces are always available as a sanctuary, not requiring booking, but with a discreet indicator that shows occupancy. Research shows people with ASD benefit emotionally and socially from exposure to nature. In the best-case scenario, design buildings with easily accessible outdoor spaces.

When adding outdoor space is not an option, use “biophilic design” to achieve a similar effect. It entails incorporating natural elements into the office, such as indoor plants and living green walls.

Inclusivity is key

By adopting a first-come, first-served approach, these spaces offer spontaneous relief without drawing undue attention to the neurodiverse individuals seeking a reprieve. This strategy not only aids in maintaining the dignity of those with diverse needs but also emphasizes an environment of equality where the well-being of every employee is valued and supported.

Involving neurodivergent employees in the design process of these spaces is not only beneficial but essential. Discreet collaboration with those who will directly benefit from these areas ensures their individual needs are met. If your company has established affinity groups for neurodivergent employees, this is a great place to start. This approach not only garners valuable insights but also fosters a sense of ownership and belonging.

Article contributors

  • Principal, Senior Director
  • U.S. Workplace Consulting

  • Principal, Executive Vice President
  • Canada Project Management

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