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How Neurodiversity relates to Planning and Development

As we have recently celebrated Neurodiversity Celebration Week (13-19 March), it is interesting to consider the various different types of neurodiversity and the way in which neurodiverse people of all types may interact differently with the built environment. From a planning perspective, we have found it particularly interesting, as well as highly relevant, to consider neurodiversity in the context of  the consultation and engagement in the planning process.

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first coined in the late 1990s and following a series of successful awareness campaigns, initially centred on autism, it has become increasingly common in our vocabulary.

It is estimated that conservatively, 1 in 20 people are neurodistinct, and some estimate that 1 in 5 may be neurodivergent in some way. Autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, and other neuroidentities are becoming increasingly well-known and understood.

Chris Packham’s two-part BBC programme Inside Our Autistic Minds did a lot to illustrate how autistic people experience the world in very different ways. But being neurodivergent does not only include autism: it encompasses a range of diagnosed cognitive conditions including dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, mental health conditions, Tourette’s, ADHD and autism. It is very common for one neurodivergence to overlap with another. This is where the concept of being ‘on the spectrum’ comes from, and illustrates how everyone who is neurodivergent will have their own unique strengths and challenges.

Put simply, those with neurodivergencies do not experience the world as “neurotypical” people. Typically, their senses can be overwhelmed very easily. There are no fewer than eight senses: sight, taste, smell, hearing, touch, vestibular (balance and spatial awareness), proprioception (awareness of body position) and interoception (perception of sensations from inside the body). When any one or a combination of these senses is overwhelmed, the result is often exceptional creative and imaginative abilities - being able to see things from a unique perspective and solve problems. But it can also lead to significant issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Bearing in mind that 15-20% of the world’s population is thought to be neurodiverse and we have increasing awareness of the impacts both on individuals and society, it is important that the planning and development sector recognises and adapts.

It goes without saying that where possible employers should provide for neurodivergent needs, for example in providing additional coaching and pastoral support, assistive technology and workplace adaptations, flexibility in scheduling and consideration of the wider environment.

The planning process itself also has a role to play, primarily at the point at which a planning application or Local Plan is consulted upon. All good consultations seek to be more inclusive and more accessible. This can be achieved initially through involving those with neurodiversity in the consultation planning process as early as possible; also designing-in genuine engagement early in the process and ensuring that engagement events are inviting and considerate. It can be beneficial to include consultation tactics which are focussed around creativity and enable the participants to come up with solutions. Events, websites or other media should be as clear as possible. Imagery is beneficial: illustrate the bigger picture and provide ‘road map’ of the process to make it clearer for consultees.

Attention can also be given to the materials and event space itself. Printed materials should include text formatted to high accessibility standards; the event space should be laid out with consideration for those with vestibular or proprioception issues. Avoiding bright or flickering lights, or very bright colours, provide signage around the venue where required, and consider having “quiet” spaces.

Planning consultants can overlook just how complex the planning system is, and so it is important to aid understanding by drawing people’s attention to the most important information in the most visual way, avoiding technical words and providing a range of communication methods. For example, video can be used alongside pictures, text and audio. Alternative ways to encourage feedback include online communication, through websites and apps. Gaming, both online and offline – for example, the use of Minecraft or Lego – has been used with considerable success. Online exhibitions and ‘consultation rooms’ address many of the neurodivergent characteristics listed above.

Including some of these features in the engagement process will ensure that the consultation caters for a wider audience, and in doing so, increase the quality and breadth of the feedback received.

And it’s not all about incorporating buzzwords or jumping on a bandwagon.  I’m neurodivergent (dyslexic) myself and so I understand the issues and challenges all too well. But I also understand how planning can appeal to neurodivergent people – whether as consultees on a planning application or as planning consultants themselves, and the contribution that they can bring. Creativity, attention to detail and problem solving offer much to the planning process and in the interests of the built environment as a whole, we should seek to work more effectively with people from a range of neurodiverse backgrounds to achieve this.

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