The number of people seeking higher education in the UK is rising. UCAS predicts that applications will pass the one million mark by the end of the decade—a 30% increase from the recorded figures in 2023. Of those growing student numbers, it’s estimated that 14% are individuals with autism or ADHD, placing the spotlight on the importance of inclusive design for higher education institutions.
Designing for neurodiversity is now a strategic imperative—setting the foundations of a rich and dynamic learning environment with both learning and social spaces across campuses being reimagined. For universities to stay competitive, attract, and retain the brightest minds – both from the UK and across the globe – they must champion environments where all students, irrespective of their neurological makeup, can thrive and excel.
Neurodiversity is simply a recognition that not all brains work in the same ‘neurotypical’ way. The term is often used as self-identification by individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other conditions that cause differences in thinking and behaviour.
Recent studies indicate that a considerable percentage of the student population identifies as neurodiverse. Unfortunately, these numbers are often underrepresented due to a lack of diagnosis or reluctance to disclose, stemming from stigma and insufficient support systems.
Traditional learning environments and methods, often designed with a one-size-fits-all approach, can inadvertently create challenging conditions for neurodiverse students. Experiences will vary vastly from one person to the next, but there are a few common areas in which students may face challenges, such as:
Many neurodivergent individuals process sensory information in a different way to neurotypical people. This can include being under or over-sensitive to certain sights, physical sensations, smells, tastes, textures or sounds. For example, in an educational setting, a neurodivergent student may feel overstimulated by bright LED lights or noisy, crowded spaces. Difficulties with sensory processing can lead to anxiety, stress or even pain – all of which inevitably hinder concentration and learning.
In a focus group held by the UK’s largest student accommodation provider, Unite Students, neurodivergent students discuss the experience of feeling ‘anxious’, ‘different’, or like they ‘don’t fit in’ and aren’t ‘part of the majority’. It’s often the intangible aspects of university life, such as social expectations, networking or extracurricular involvement that can cause alienation and create obstacles in forming social connections.
Some neurodivergent individuals struggle to remain still or to focus for prolonged periods of time. They may need to fidget, tap, or leave their set and move around. In a higher education setting, this could make the experience of lectures or other forms of teaching challenging.
Much like the need to design for neurodiversity in the workplace, inclusive spaces enable individuals to accomplish their tasks in ways that resonate most effectively with them. It’s important to note that neurodiversity affects every person differently, and there is no singular best approach to suit all. A truly inclusive design will therefore be seamlessly adaptable, practical, and flexible enough to meet the needs of students across the whole spectrum of neurodiversity.
Zoning is a design technique used to split an interior space into sections. Each section serves a distinct purpose or is dedicated to a specific type of work. Many universities already utilise this to some extent by having defined areas for group work, focused work and silent study. Zoning can be incorporated into the natural flow of a room using features like furniture, plants and panelling.
This technique can effectively support students with noise sensitivities, difficulty focusing, or those prone to sensory overload. Free from the potentially distracting or overstimulating environment of an energetic university campus, silent zones can offer an optimal space for deep, focused work. On the other hand, some neurodivergent students thrive through energetic collaboration, discussion and movement. This is why it is important to provide designated, strategically placed spaces for all modes of learning.
Neurodivergent students may require more frequent breaks to recharge and help them remain focused on learning throughout the day. Offering dedicated areas of retreat could therefore be hugely beneficial, providing a sanctuary to which they can recharge in a space that is quiet and calm when needed.
These quiet areas may include dimmed lighting to combat overstimulation, and a range of comfortable seating options to encourage relaxation. They may even incorporate a biophilic interior design to promote nature connectedness, which has been linked to reductions in anxiety and promotion of calm and concentration.
Designing spaces and educational experiences that adapt to individual preferences and abilities ensures that every student can engage with their learning environment in a way that suits them best. At its core, this means offering a variety of options for how students can learn and participate.
For example, in a flexible classroom, features like modular furniture and sliding wall panels allow rooms to be quickly adapted and reconfigured for different activities and learning styles. This could mean having the option to work at a traditional desk, sit on a soft couch for group discussions, or stand at a high table for projects that require more space.
Whether it’s lighting and acoustics or textures and materials, sensory sensitivities can significantly impact a student’s ability to learn, concentrate, and engage. Sensitivities will differ from person to person, but there are certain design choices that are often helpful in creating a more inclusive environment. Dimmable lights and the use of warm tones, for example, can reduce glare and the potential for overstimulation, creating a calmer atmosphere conducive to focus and creativity.
Simple and functional designs free from busy patterns, and room acoustics that prevent excessive loud background noise and echoing may also be beneficial. This might take shape as soundproofed materials, strategic placement of soft furnishings or the inclusion of quiet zones to promote a more inclusive environment. Where possible, learning spaces should be placed away from food outlets or other areas with strong odours.
Following in the footsteps of modern workplaces, higher education institutions need to be considering designs that move away from the traditional, rigid view of a workspace. Placing students at the heart of their design will enable universities to create smart, flexible spaces capable of supporting a whole spectrum of learning styles, while also helping students unlock their academic potential by enhancing their ability to access the full university experience.
Successful design in higher education calls for an equal balance of aesthetics, flexibility and inclusivity. Perhaps the most vital first step universities can take is being willing to listen to, learn from and be guided by their own community of neurodivergent students. Because ultimately, the decision to consider neurodivergent needs is a decision to uplift a large, valuable and ever-growing sector of the UK’s student population.