A few small steps can make public spaces inclusive for neurodivergent people too

Community outreach programs are rethinking artistic and cultural spaces to enable inclusivity of not just the physically challenged but also the neurodivergent

Chin-Chin is 46 years old and neurodivergent. To her and her family, a simple restaurant visit can be an arduous journey navigating through an inhospitable space. The lights are too bright, the chairs are hard-edged, and there is too much happening all the time. It’s almost as if she’s been dropped in the middle of a battlefield with all the bullets aimed at her.

Chin-Chin’s story isn’t unique. Both children and adults who are neurodivergent, or to use the medical term in the ‘neurodivergent spectrum’, experience a world designed for the neuro-typical in a very different way. “When I take her out, the seating arrangement itself can get overwhelming for her because she can suddenly see a lot of people,” says Sindhu Wadhwa, Chin-Chin’s sister and a Bangalore-based clinical psychotherapist.

Unfortunately, most public spaces often give no thought to those with special neurological needs. While facilities like ramps and reserved parking space for the physically challenged are now becoming integral to the design of public spaces, civic society is yet to understand the needs of the non-disabled but neurodivergent people who often have to fend for themselves in frustratingly uncooperative public spaces.

Read more: Making our museums vibrant community spaces

Although growing awareness and acknowledgment of people with neuro disabilities have now led to some inclusivity in educational institutions and workplaces, efforts still fall short outside this narrow circle. Social stigma and shame are still big impediments to accessibility, along with a lack of awareness and education.

“Whenever we talk about treatment procedures, what therapy would involve, how long it would take, the first thing people ask is – will my child be normal?,” says Swetha Desiraju, a behaviour therapist at one of the leading Autism treatment centers in Hyderabad. And second, “will society accept my child?” 

“Most of people’s concerns are related to how the child behaves in front of others rather than how the child is feeling,” adds Swetha. “Our society puts pressure on people to be ‘normal,’ that puts a lot of pressure on the child. Many people do not understand that it’s okay; there is no normal – that it’s either neurodiverse or not neurotypical”.

Keeping these challenges in mind, several grassroots attempts have sprung up to create more inclusivity outside the academic and professional space. Like Project Svaritha, an initiative started earlier this January by The Indian Music Experience (IME) museum in Bengaluru.

Small ways to include the neurodivergent

The project first studied the needs of 500 children, among which more than 150 had neurodivergent needs. By surveying the museum’s landscape and how it could be made more accommodative towards these children, the study found many small ways by which this could be achieved.

Observations on sensory stimulation, noise, light, and overcrowding were used in creating a more inclusive design of the museum’s spaces.

“Some of the changes recommended were in terms of the tour design itself,” explains Manasi Prasad, Director of IME. “The way a person from a regular background would be taken on a tour of the museum would be very different from someone with neurodivergent needs. For example, providing frequent rest points is very important. We created what’s known as a ‘sensory room’ which has musical instruments and other objects to engage with them. The lighting and the temperature settings were changed in line with what is comfortable for children who have autism or other conditions”.

Neurodivergent--representative image
Representative image. India probably still has a long way to go in understanding and accepting neurodiversity and legislation and policy might help speed up the process

“Another thing was using non-verbal cues for children with neurodivergent needs. For example, if they need to visit the washroom or they need to express that they’re happy or uncomfortable, they were given non-verbal ways of communication – a chart which has different expressions (happy, sad, need to use the washroom), which they could easily use”.

Read more: Making our museums vibrant community spaces

Similar endeavors have sprung up around Bengaluru by organizations like Kilikili, which partnered with the BBMP between 2006-10 to construct multi-ability children’s parks. Tiles of different textures, sound-stimulating pipes, safe swings, and wheelchair merry-go-rounds are some elements added to create a happier experience. While these elements are so far restricted to three areas – Basavanagudi, Fraser Town, and Rajajinagar – there is hope that more such initiatives will follow. 

It is not hard to imagine other places like malls, restaurants, or amusement parks adopting these design elements. In fact, these elements are surprisingly cost-effective and easier to incorporate than we think. 

“As a psychologist I know it’s a challenge for neurodiverse kids to organize and position their brains towards space,” says Sindhu Wadhwa. “When a neurodiverse kid walks in, it will take a bit of time for them to form pathways in the brain to figure out how this place is laid out, Luckily, the neurodiverse brain works in predictable ways”.

Sindhu suggests several other ways to open up public spaces to these children:

  1. One is biophilia, which is making it easier for them to process hard surfaces by mimicking the flow of nature and by creating more green spaces. The goal is to reduce hard edges, add more plant décor, and avoid sudden exposure to wide, open spaces. This would help pad the space by introducing natural elements, not just for aesthetic purposes but also to reduce the sensory overload. A person on the neurodivergent spectrum can enter a room and can perceive its components gradually, rather than being hit with it all at once
  2. The second is wayfinding, which is giving prompts and signs to somebody with neurodiversity to make it easy for them to orient themselves in space. It would help to have big, repetitive signboards that tell them, say, ‘ground floor here,’ and once you reach the ground floor, a ‘this is the ground floor’ sign.

Initiatives like these could have major implications about expanding the circle of society, art and culture to a more diverse population.

Needed awareness and application

In 2019, it was estimated that 2.2% of India’s population comprises people living with disabilities. Community outreach activities and inclusivity programs are the need of the hour to bring this population into the conversation. If the IME’s recommendations are anything to go by, solutions to these issues are more straightforward than anticipated. It’s more a matter of awareness and application.

“It is not that difficult for malls or other public places to have a board that says ‘We are autism-friendly’ or ‘we are neurodiverse-friendly’,” says Swetha. “People with neurodevelopmental disorders have a lot of sensory issues, so places like restaurants and malls can help by just putting a sign that says, for example, ‘we can turn down the music if you need to’ or ‘we can turn down the lights’.”

“People can begin by understanding what exactly that a person with autism goes through. It is not necessary to make make the place entirely for people with autism. Still, public spaces can be autism-friendly or neurodiverse-friendly. If someone is having a meltdown, a helper can be taught a little about what it feels like to have a meltdown or why children with autism have meltdowns, and what a person can do to help in that situation. It doesn’t take much; probably an hour of psychoeducation for employees. One such session and the entire mall is now psycho-educated concerning ASD or ADHD or other disorders”.

Read more: How can Mumbai get more public spaces?

“Architects and policymakers could be more sensitive and design spaces where I could walk in with my sister, or my cousin with ADHD and they’d be okay to sit there and order food,” adds Sindhu. “If the waiters could be sensitized, and the menu is not overwhelming. Simple things like that. We need to do this, because we have one in eight children are presently diagnosed with neurodiverse needs. And it’s not about token inclusivism. It makes business sense too. Because these are the people we’re going to be hiring, for their creativity, for their innovation. They are very task-oriented. So it makes sense to make places employable or employee-friendly to them?” 

Legislation and policy might help speed up the process of making room for our neurodiverse population. India probably still has a long way to go in understanding and accepting neurodiversity, but change has begun in some cities. As more places start to implement autism-friendly or neurodiverse-accommodative spaces, we can hope that we are one step closer to a more inclusive and considerate society. 

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