A Bigger Table
for Neurodiversity

Beyond Sensory Accommodations:
Furthering the Potential of Neurodiverse Teammates

By Gary Bouthillette | Senior Director of Lighting Design

Simple design choices can have subtle but substantial benefits for workplace culture. When designing for neurodiversity something as seemingly trivial as the size of a lunch-room table can have a significant impact. We’ll come back to the table later in this post. The names of many neurodivergent conditions clearly indicate how they are perceived: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), etc. Oddly, adults with these conditions often do not think of themselves as having a disorder or disability; they simply recognize that they experience the world differently in some ways than most people.

From a positive perspective, neurodivergence usually comes with a set of inherent talents in addition to difficulties in adapting to a mostly neurotypical world. Such talents include excellent pattern recognition and problem-solving abilities, tremendous focused energy to accomplish tasks, highly creative thinking, and in general, a penchant for out-of-the-box thinking. However, another common factor among neurodivergent conditions is the potential for social anxiety. With regards to autism, for example, difficulty with social communication is literally a requirement for diagnosis per the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Social anxiety in the neurodivergent community is inherent to some conditions or can be acquired due to misunderstood behaviors and social stigmas. As a result, some neurodivergent folks may actively avoid social interaction in the workplace when they don’t have control over when and where it occurs. But what many people do not realize is that although their neurodivergent co-workers might opt out of some social events, they still like to be invited and need the same access to opportunities for casual social interaction as everyone else.

Design responses frequently focus exclusively on sensory issues that may be part of the neurodiverse condition: light sensitivity, auditory issues, olfactory issues, etc. However, just addressing those factors will not adequately enable neurodivergent employees to fully utilize and share their unique skills or inspire participation in the workplace community. Attending to sensory issues is important, but that only allows neurodivergent people to exist alongside their neurotypical counterparts and does not necessarily help them thrive in the workplace. How can such employees return to the office with their innate talents operating at full capacity, able to share them with co-workers?

Which brings us to the lunch-room table. Small tables for lunchtime dining are often favored because they are easy to re-arrange, but they lend themselves to small groups familiar with one another or lone occupants. Booths as well as long counters designed for more than a dozen people may create a similar socially isolating effect.

Cambridge Associates, Boston, MA | Photography by Robert Benson

However, sometimes opportunity smiles and the social magic starts to happen. A slightly oversized farmhouse table that seats 8-14 people comfortably without bumping elbows and provides a generous amount of open space in front of your sandwich or bowl of power greens can have a very different sociological impact. At that size, there is nothing awkward about choosing a seat at the table, and you can opt in or out of a conversation with the simplest of body language. In short, for people who might not regularly seek it this can be an ideal place for casual social interaction. And who knows, you might just get to hear about the special project someone is working on that you never would have known about, which could use your unique talents…or maybe learn they have two cats at home. It’s all good.

Designing such serendipitous social incubators as part of the workplace benefits everyone, but may be most important for co-workers who might be thought of as not interested in interacting and sharing. This is just one example of how designing for neurodiverse inclusion not just equity is in the details. 

Brown Advisory, Washington, DC | Photography by Halkin Mason Photography LLC

Gary Bouthillette, AIA, NCARB, LC

Principal, Senior Director of Lighting

Senior Director of Lighting Design Gary Bouthillette has over 25 years of experience as an architect and lighting designer providing solutions for major organizations and Fortune 500 companies spanning an extensive range of industries, including technology, finance, entertainment, law, education, and energy, to name a few. He is a member of the AIA, lighting certified by the National Council on Qualifications for Lighting Professionals, and a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. Gary identifies as a neurodivergent professional. He is based in IA’s Los Angeles studio but works nationwide.

Contact Gary: g.bouthillette@interiorarchitects.com