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Neurodiversity and architecture: how practices can create supportive environments

With Neurodiversity Celebration Week in full swing, two architects share their experiences of living with different neurodivergences.

16 March 2023

There is a strong feeling, though no definitive evidence, that neurodiversity runs at a higher level in the profession than in the general population. At LEAP, the specialist Passivhaus practice in Durham led by Mark Siddall, the statistics are certainly skewed that way.

Mark has long been diagnosed with dyslexia, while his colleague Nick Simpson found out as a qualified architect that he has ADHD. That makes LEAP currently 100% neurodivergent.

Both architects have different neurodivergences that provide their own challenges, but both are also uniquely qualified to reflect on their lived experiences within the industry, as well as suggest guidance to other practices about how they can create a supportive environment for their own neurodivergent colleagues.

An explainer video on different types of neurodivergences, celebrating the unique strengths and differences (Credit: Angela Ellis)

Neurodivergence and architecture

“I’m only an architect, probably, because I have ADHD,” Nick says. As part of recognising the symptoms of his own neurodivergence, he knows that he struggles with some things more than someone who is neurotypical, particularly with tasks that don’t motivate him. For instance, he started out studying planning, but soon discovered it was not for him.

“With ADHD, you can’t apply yourself in a career you are not excited by. I think that’s why, when I came across architects when studying planning, I thought: ‘I want to be one of those guys’.”

That was not the end of the story, of course. As a junior architect working in a large practice, as one of his natural coping mechanisms, Nick found that he had to work extra hours to keep up. However, when he had children and could no longer routinely work late, this coping mechanism of working longer hours was no longer viable.

“If you are just one of 20 or 30 junior architects in a practice trying to deal with the same information at speed and have ADHD, it’s not the place for you,” he suggests.

And so began his journey towards specialism. Nick was diagnosed with ADHD just over two years ago. After listening to a podcast about other people’s experiences with neurodivergence, he recognised many of the symptoms. The subsequent diagnosis was really helpful, he recalls, as he suddenly had a new understanding of himself.

It was around this time he also trained to become a Passivhaus designer. Since then he has found that being a specialist, and having people come to him for his particular skills rather than being one jostling among many, has made him feel as though he has finally found his place within the profession.

Why clearly defined constraints and specialisms can help

Mark had always wanted to be an architect, but his struggle with reading and writing at school led to him being told he was not smart enough. Insofar as he decided to prove his doubters wrong, he says these negative experiences helped him develop a certain resilience and mental fortitude.

After leaving school at 16 he followed a vocational route, working in an architectural practice and studying on day release on his way to becoming an architectural technologist. After four years he had done well enough to gain entrance to study at Newcastle University.

“These days, of course, there are other routes into becoming an architect, you can do that while working in practice,” he says. “So, if you want to become an architect, I’d suggest looking for a pathway that suits your learning style, and consider whether there are any suitable ‘off ramps’ that could also lead to a career that could work for you.”

Mark adds that he has always found that establishing clearly defined constraints helps to manage his dyslexia. Like Nick, he sees the constraints imposed by a specialism – in their case Passivhaus design – as a real benefit because, strange as it may sound, well defined constraints actually support and expand their creativity.

“A specialism helps you to focus your attention, develop clarity of purpose and avoid other distractions,” he says. “I don’t know how it is for other people, but I find a poorly defined brief leads to uncertainty, and that can lead to wasted time and different forms of procrastination. That’s why clarifying constraints is so important and why it’s something I am doing when I’m training other architects and engineers to become Passivhaus designers.”

Empathy is key when creating supportive environments for neurodivergent colleagues (Photo: iStock. Stock photo, posed by models)

"I own my dyslexia"

A recent study – which concluded that dyslexia should be reframed as a strength rather than a learning disability – showed that links between dyslexia and a greater capacity to reason in many dimensions and across different systems could explain why some people with neurodivergences are more likely to be drawn to creative careers such as architecture. It is certainly something that Siddall sees in himself. “My dyslexia lends itself to a whole systems approach where you are looking at multiple perspectives. I certainly own my dyslexia, it doesn’t own me.”

Nick suspects that the same may be true for other neurodiverse conditions, particularly for specialisms. He says it is noticeable on social media just how many people involved in low energy design, Passivhaus, and sustainability are open about their neurodiversity.

“You need to have architects with neurodiversity because we see the world slightly differently,” he jokes. “I think that’s an advantage to the profession.”

How can managers increase their awareness of neurodivergence?

Awareness of neurodiversity within the profession has been growing, certainly in the case of dyslexia.

As an employer, Mark suggests that practice managers should approach all staff with empathy and try to understand what challenges they are going through. While an issue could be rooted in neurodiversity it could equally be a matter of mental health, both, or something entirely different. Without the facts, you’re only guessing.

If there is a diagnosis, managers should make sure they know the difference between the ‘caricatures’ of a condition and the realities of the individual, Mark adds.

He also says that whatever someone in a practice’s management structure thinks they know about neurodiversity, they are nearly almost always wrong. Arming themselves with knowledge about a neurodivergence relevant to an employee is a crucial first step. Only then, by working with the staff member, can they work together to develop a suitably supportive working environment.

If a colleague has previously been diagnosed as neurodivergent, they will no doubt have had to develop their own coping mechanisms on the way to becoming an architect, and in some cases, these may no longer be working for them as their career progresses and their challenges evolve. But it’s always worth remembering that colleagues with neurodivergences already have the right abilities and aptitude to be an architect in the first place. They just need the right support.

What can practices do to help neurodiverse colleagues?

Nick adds that the workplace is also important when it comes to supporting neurodivergent colleagues.

When someone is first diagnosed as neurodivergent they might not know what kind of work environment works for them best, so asking them what they need from their workplace can be a great way to understand their requirements and help them understand that they are a valued member of the team.

“Certain types of environments can be overstimulating for those with some neurodivergences. If there’s scope to move their desk into a quieter corner of the office, that may be a huge benefit to them. Perhaps giving them a laptop – if they haven’t got one already – would also be a good idea. They can then move to a quieter part of the office if and when they need to.”

Mark’s final piece of guidance is aimed at those with neurodivergences.

He says: “Don't feel the need to force yourself to fit in. Life is too short. Find, or make, a place that works for you - and if that means finding a different, more suitable, more engaged employer with greater empathy, or even setting up your own practice, then so be it."

Nick recently shared more of his experiences of neurodivergence in a recent RIBA J.E.D.I. Talk.

Thanks to Nick Simpson and Mark Siddall, LEAP

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

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