Neurodivergency in Writing Center Design: Where is it?


Disability and Writing Centers, Diversity and Inclusion, Student Voices, Undergraduate Students, Writing Centers / Tuesday, November 15th, 2022

By Maya Osaka, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

“Sorry, can you repeat that?”

My client begins again—this is the second time I’ve asked them to do so during our session, and as their voice begins to fade away I know I’ll likely have to ask them to repeat themself for a third time. It is humiliating. With each moment where I struggle to pull their voice out of the never-ending tsunami of sensory stimuli it’s being washed away in, I can’t help but to think about . . . the lights, actually. Their dull fluorescence soaks into every bookcase, desk, and notepad. Even the grooves in the fabric covering of the cubicle walls, each detail drenching my brain in a haze of static. They hum, too, a thready pulse that worms its way into my head and curls up next to my eardrums. So does the on-and-off whir of the computers, and the intertwining voices of the other tutors and clients in the shallow cubicles flanking mine, echoing across the laminate floors. 

It’s simple: I am overstimulated. My neurodivergent brain is overwhelmed by the sea of information and sensory input it’s confronted with, leaving me feeling panicked, exhausted, and dizzyingly disoriented.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Writing Resources Center. A table is in the middle of the room, where a tutor works on their laptop. The table is decorated with orange and white pumpkins. Against the light yellow walls are open-backed cubicles with computer monitors and desk chairs. A tutor sits in one of the cubicles. The writing center is decorated with felt leaf cut-outs pinned to the cubicle walls.
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Writing Resources Center

When I first began working at University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Writing Resources Center a little over a year ago, a freshly-acquired diagnosis for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sensory-processing disorders in hand, I immediately recognized how difficult it was for me to be in the space where our center is housed. Design elements that may be of little to no consequence to those without such disorders (people otherwise referred to as “neurotypical”), such as those dull fluorescent lights, became a sensory gauntlet for me—one that I continue to struggle with today and that impacts my tutoring experience. When I first mentioned this to fellow tutors with ADHD, autism, and sensory-processing issues several weeks into working, I was met with resounding agreement: in its physical design, the writing center was a difficult, and even inaccessible, space for neurodivergent people to navigate.

These conversations immediately sparked my curiosity about how the writing center can be an accessible space for neurodivergent individuals in its architectural design, an aspect that I found wasn’t frequently discussed when talking about the best practices the writing center can implement to accommodate neurodivergent individuals. As I began to dive into research on architecture designed for the neurodivergent brain, I quickly found that there were more questions than answers. When I sought out literature where, specifically, the fields of neurodivergent-accessible architecture/design and writing center studies overlapped, I was confronted with a noticeable gap in research—it was this gap that really piqued my interest. In the writing center, one of the few university spaces where an organic and adaptable learning environment is the standard, where was the research on how to make the center a physically adaptable and accessible space for neurodivergent people? 

It’s my aim to discuss this gap in literature, what it looks like, and to highlight just how crucial it is that we invest into this aspect of writing center and design studies.

Three open-backed cubicles against the wall, side by side. Each cubicle has a desk, two computer monitors, and two chairs. The middle cubicle is empty, while the two that flank it are occupied by tutors. Above the middle cubicle is a large painting of flowers. Each cubicle has informational flyers stapled to its walls.
A closer look at the workspace setup in the Writing Resources Center

What Does “Neurodivergent” Mean?

First, let’s take a look at what “neurodivergent” means. Neurodivergent is a term used to describe variations within the brain’s range of functions regarding social interaction, sensory experiences, mood, learning, and more that “diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’” (Walker). Neurodivergent people, such as but not limited to those with autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder, interact with and interpret the world in unique ways providing a unique set of spatial requirements often not met with accessibility in common infrastructure, let alone within the scaffolding of academia such as a writing center (Turner, 2020). Sound, texture, light, smell, and dimension are all elements that can and do heavily impact the interactions and interpretations of the world within neurodivergent brains, and should these elements present negatively they can entirely block access to a neurodivergent person (Turner, 2020).

Accessibility in Literature: The Gaps

When accessibility is discussed, it’s often thought of as something that relates solely to physical mobility. This aspect of accessibility is, no doubt, crucial and must be consistently highlighted, however it is of equal importance that the idea of accessibility and what it entails is expanded to consider accessibility for the brain—something frequently overlooked in design processes. This oversight is particularly prominent in academia as a whole, where accessibility, if even considered at all, continues to be a constant, exhausting fight for disabled people on all fronts. This is due in part to deeply embedded beliefs in academic spaces that disabled people simply do not, or cannot exist and thrive within the university. The writing center, despite being a unique space within universities and colleges often filled with individuals who inherently weave accessibility into their methods due to the pedagogical nature of the center, is, unfortunately, no exception to any of these things. 

So, how do we tear it down? From a research perspective, we don’t have an answer.

When we do look for answers on how to tackle the lack of accessibility in physical design through the lens of neurodivergent access, we find ourselves staring at a significant (though not unsurprising) gap in research and literature of true rigor and validity. The sources that do exist, including the ones I cite in this post, consistently make a point of highlighting how little reference exists for them to situate their own work in, despite the fact that the debilitating overstimulation itself that frequently results from inaccessible design has been acknowledged by scholars and medical researchers alike. 

The sparse nature of the research conducted has also resulted in largely uninformed spatial design, and equally uninformed and even contradictory accessible design theory that, more often than not, vaguely attempts to introduce universal architecture. Christopher N. Henry, a consultant focusing on designing accessible spaces primarily for those with autism, critiques this trend in research in his own work by noting that there has yet to be any idea of what a universal design could even present as. For example, the majority of prominent theories in this field regarding spatial measurements, lighting, colors, and more, directly contradict one another due to the lack of sturdy, reliable research (Henry, 2011). 

Due in part to the lack of reliable research on what physical accessibility for the neurodivergent brain even looks like, architects can easily fall into approaching this accessibility through the narrow lens of a form of universal design that frequently ends up operating on preconceived notions about the needs of neurodivergent individuals (Hickey). 

Universal design theories focus on creating spaces that are functional, comfortable, and accessible for, ideally, everyone, and they often provide us with stepping stones towards widespread accessibility. However, by excluding the necessary input from our community that is essential to making neurodivergent-accessible designs remotely successful, theories of universal design in architecture can actually serve to bolster the inaccessibility universal design attempts to combat. When this practice in architectural universal design becomes standardized, not only does it further entrench ableism, but it widens the gap in reliable, applicable literature that can accurately inform neurodivergent-accessible design (Hickey).

While those of us in the neurodivergent community absolutely share a swath of commonalities and experiences, each of us interacts with the world differently. There is no lone, universal design that can be fully accessible to each and every neurodivergent person—accessibility must be adaptable.

pull quote reads, "There is no lone, universal design that can be fully accessible to each and every neurodivergent person—accessibility must be adaptable."

These gaps that we find in existing literature become even more apparent when we narrow our lens to look at neurodivergent-accessible architecture specifically as it relates to the writing center. When discussing existing literature on designing accessible learning spaces, Leslie Hadfield et al. note that “[e]ven when we do find some useful information about college classrooms and construction, a space such as a writing center—which is neither classroom nor office—is not addressed” (2003). That is, even within research that focuses on architectural accessibility in universities and colleges, the writing center as a whole is rarely mentioned at all, despite the fact that its unique pedagogical nature means that it requires equally unique guidance on accessibility in comparison to other university spaces.

Even when we focus on writing center discourse and journals, where it can be argued that conversations on accessibility do take place with more frequency than in other regions of academia (Babcock, 2015), neurodivergency as it relates to accessibility still finds itself neglected. For example, writing center scholar Rebecca Babcock notes that disabilities such as ADHD are rarely mentioned in writing center literature, despite being the second most commonly reported disability amongst college student populations (2015). Even though this is indicative of the gap in interest and literature that unfortunately continues into writing center studies, as well as how crucial it is that more research takes place, Babcock does note the flexible and deeply individual nature of the writing center pedagogically (2015), which showcases its potential ability to achieve adaptable accessibility. 

pull quote reads, "In every single peer-reviewed article that I did find about accessibility, I noticed one consistency: the absence of neurodivergent people."

Who Are You Listening To?

However, even inside of these conversations in writing center literature that explicitly discuss the problem of these gaps in research, we find, well, gaps. When I first became curious about accessibility for neurodivergent people like myself within the writing center, alongside the glaring lack of fleshed-out, solid research, in every single peer-reviewed article that I did find about accessibility, I noticed one consistency: the absence of neurodivergent people. 

While we can see this through, for example, otherwise ideal and helpful concepts of universal architectural design being informed by inaccurate notions of neurodivergency, it’s also crucial to recognize when the writing center and its literature discusses accessibility without the input of neurodivergent people, by assuming our wants and needs, or—most commonly—through the assumption that neurodivergent individuals can only be clients, not tutors. Further, both the exclusion of neurodivergent individuals in design processes, as well as how crucially non-negotiable our input is throughout in order for these designs to function, is noted in literature. So, where are our voices? Include us in your research and accessibility efforts. Ask us what makes the center more accessible, and don’t assume that we’re not already in the center. We are.

pull quote reads, "Where are our voices? Include us in your research and accessibility efforts. Ask us what makes the center more accessible, and don't assume that we're not already in the center. We are."

The writing center is a magnificent space of pedagogical creativity, adaptability, and flexibility. We are designed to support students, faculty, staff, and tutors themselves in their academic and personal journeys with writing—it’s work that we pride ourselves on. But, until we recognize the center as a potential space of struggle, and until we can recognize the need for more emphasis on in-depth, strong research on accessible architecture that prioritizes the voices of neurodivergent individuals, the writing center cannot truly fulfill its responsibilities. 

Works Cited

Babcock, Rebecca. “Disabilities in the Writing Center.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2015, http://www.praxisuwc.com/babcock-131. 

Hadfield, Leslie, et al. “An Ideal Writing Center: Re-Imagining Space and Design.” Center Will Hold, edited by Michael A. Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead, University Press of Colorado, 2003. JSTOR.

Henry, Christopher N. “Designing for Autism: Spatial Considerations.” ArchDaily, ArchDaily, 26 Oct. 2011. 

Hickey, Brian. “How Architecture Design Can Help Those with Autism Engage with the World.” The Nexus, 4 Aug. 2020. 

Turner, Jonathan. “Neurodiversity in Architecture.” Issuu, 4 May 2020. 

Walker, Nick. “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions.” NEUROQUEER, 19 July 2022.

Maya is sitting on a brick staircase. She is wearing blue jeans, a gray long sleeve shirt, gold earrings, and a gold necklace.

Maya Osaka is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is majoring in English and Philosophy, and minoring in Japanese. Outside of her studies, she is a member of UNC Charlotte’s Women’s Rugby Club and is a passionate writer of poetry.

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