• April 2, 2024

The spaces we inhabit and frequent have a deep impact on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Because of this, designers and architects are paying more attention than ever to how built environments are conceived, and how they incorporate strategies like biophilia to enhance comfort and quality of life.

But then there’s sensory overload: From our cities’ busy streets to where we work, live and play, the stimuli around us are constantly increasing, and that has a major and often overlooked influence on our mental health. While some people thrive in hectic environments, others can be particularly vulnerable. This is especially true of autistic individuals who generally have difficulty processing sensory information. Exposure to excessive noises, smells, colors and/or textures can lead to a host of reactions, from anxiety and anger to collapse and autistic withdrawal.

Understanding these signs and their triggers is essential to providing truly inclusive environments that recognize neurodiversity. But how is this knowledge applied to their designs?  

The transformative power of neuroinclusive design

Taking different perceptual sensitivities into account, neuroinclusive design combines spatial logic and sensory compatibility to create a space that respects the needs of neurodivergent people.  

The Centre Lise et Yvon Lamarre is a good example of this approach, where their mission is to provide housing and activities for young adults with autism. Its design—the result of close collaboration exhaustive research carried out with the Fondation Lamarre—forms an environment perfectly adapted to the hyper- and hyposensitivity of its users.

From colour palettes and materiality to fenestration and lighting, each design element has been thought out with the senses in mind to create a soothing setting and reassuring landmarks. Even thresholds and angles have been softened to limit abrupt changes and potentially surprising effects when moving.

Sensory fragmentation is at the heart of this approach, enabling a hierarchy to be established between each room that ranges from low to high stimuli. It provides residents with predictability and a smooth progression from cozy bedrooms to the more stimulating shared areas. This sequence is structured around four “architectural fragments”: Houses, transition space, the commons and exterior space.

Outside, our team applied these same design drivers to the landscaping. Forming a succession of haptic and acoustic experiences, each zone integrates a sensory aspect into an unfolding journey of discoveries. Unlike the indoor spaces, they are designed not to soothe the senses, but to engage them to varying degrees.

These strategies provide a place of learning and development that embraces all the cognitive and behavioural characteristics of people experiencing Autism Spectrum Disorder: It includes a water playground, a zen garden, aromatic plants, bird feeders, a textured wall, a vegetable garden, and a flower meadow. Transitional areas also punctuate the layout, offering respite between passive, semi-passive, semi-active and active zones.

Inclusive living environments for more welcoming cities

The sensory segmentation of these environments, combined with the compartmentalization of private and common areas, has a positive influence on behavior and general well-being. Beyond controlling stimuli, social interaction, and privacy, they offer opportunities for choice of space that supports dignity, autonomy, and participation in community life. The results benefit residents and their loved ones, as well as caregivers and the broader community.

The planning and design principles at the heart of the Centre Lise et Yvon Lamarre can be extended to a variety of residential, commercial, and public spaces through interventions that take neurodiversity into account: 

  • Adjusting ventilation, heating and lighting with a focus on limiting overstimulation;
  • The creation of calming spaces where you can recharge your batteries after a stressful period;
  • A minimalist, consistent and soothing color palette, free from visual distractions;
  • Sound-absorbing materials to minimize echoes and reverberation;
  • Structured areas to reduce unpredictability.

By integrating these strategies throughout buildings, neighbourhoods, and cities, we not only ensure that people with autism feel welcome and involved in all aspects of urban life, but we also help to create healthy, comfortable and caring environments. Neuroinclusive design is much more far-reaching than you might think, and new designs demonstrate the positive effects we could produce if this approach became the norm.