Articles - 21st January 2020

SFW: The need for coworking designed for neurodiverse people

Words by Lydia Wilkins
Illustration by Amber Vittoria

Why aren’t we discussing the need for shared workspaces that work for neurodiverse people – and how freelancers can use them? Freelancing can be ideal for people with neurodivergent conditions, but what happens when shared workspaces are not adapted for people with neurodivergent conditions? How can ‘hotdesking’ be made more suitable?

Neurodiversity can be difficult to explain, as it covers a litany of meanings. According to the Wikipedia entry, “Neurodiversity describes a basic aspect of natural difference within a given species.” The entry further notes that, although a term initially applied to individuals on the Autistic Spectrum, other “groups” have adapted it – such as for conditions like ADHD, Dyslexia, and more. The idea is that rather than viewing ourselves as “sick” – and in need of “curing”, another controversial topic for another time – neurodiversity in principle is about using the condition to the best of your advantage, rather than having to conform to standards of normality.


Just what is the issue?

Accessibility. What do you think of when you hear this word? You may well be thinking of wheelchair accessibility. But for people with neurodivergent conditions, offices – and by proxy, shared workplaces – can be difficult to cope with. Working from home can be a good option to take, but shared workspaces can be hard.

For somebody on the Autistic spectrum, hypersensitivity to different stimuli is often overwhelming, and can lead to a meltdown. This can be something as basic as smells such as bananas, differing types of lights, or even being subject to an open plan office.

Laura James is a journalist. She has also written a memoir, “Odd Girl Out”, about dealing with EDS and a late-life Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. “I struggle with shared workspaces, for many reasons the low-level hum of conversation, people eating strong-smelling foods at their desks, the enforced socialization and having to chat around the water cooler/coffee.”

As a freelancer myself, I have had to utilise my own strategies to make shared spaces ‘usable’. This includes working in shared spaces at certain times, using headphones, even having a ‘stim’ toy in my pocket, just in case. Whenever I work with people who are neurodivergent, the venue is the first priority – such as if noises, smells are something they can’t cope with.

Violet Fenn is a writer for The Metro, and has also written a best-selling book. Fenn notes that she rarely uses shared workplaces, but that they are a “necessary evil”. She added that her tolerance of the area does, however, depend on whether concessions have been made for neurodivergent users.

Rather than the individual having to conform to the workplace, the workplace should conform to them. But shared co-working spaces, and those that are the result of ‘hotdesking’, are not ideal for people with neurodivergent conditions.


What adaptations are needed?

Adaptations can be varied, according to the condition.

Peter Crosbie specialises in post-production audio; this has covered film post-production, as well as work for a theatre. For the past decade, he has mainly mixed music. He has his own studio, meaning he does not have to engage with anyone. Commercial studios, he noted, can be overwhelming.

Violet Fenn had much to add when asked about what adaptations should be available: “There should always be the option to be ‘tucked away’, even if it’s just having some partitioned spaces rather than everything being open plan. Or maybe a certain section of desks should be the ‘quiet zone’ and if you’re working there, no one’s to disturb you on pain of DEATH. And it needs to be possible to book out the same desk on a regular basis.”

She went on to include: “Oh, and I’d like to be able to make coffee without being expected to make conversation with anyone else.)”


And the impact?

For people who are not neurodivergent – sometimes referred to as neurotypical – adaptations could feasibly have a positive impact.

Hester Grainger is the co-founder of Hudia. She is considered to be neurotypical, but has relatives who have neurodivergent conditions.

When asked how she thinks adaptations can benefit freelancers across the board, she said: “Neurodivergent or not, shared workspaces can be tricky. A lot of workspaces have coffee shops selling food, which isn’t great if you have sensory processing disorder, as smells can be a huge issue and cause a lot of anxiety. By setting out clear areas where people can chat, away from others who want a quiet space to work will ensure everyone is more productive.

Ty Unglebower added: “Freelancers in general, ND or not, especially writers such as myself, would probably benefit from an all hours sort of operation as well. Lots of people either work late or find that they fall behind enough in a project that they need a few extra hours away from distraction long after everything is closed around them.”

Violet Fenn concluded: “Enjoying company doesn’t automatically equal wanting to interact with it, whether you’re ND or not! I often work in coffee shops for this reason – I don’t know anyone so am left to my own devices, whilst still having ‘company’.”

Freelancing is generally seen as being on the rise, and a significant part of the ‘gig economy’. It is an ideal option for somebody who has a condition making them ‘neurodivergent’ – but inaccessible shared workspaces can present additional challenges. It’s time to change that.

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