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A Case for Diversity in Our Workspaces

I am writing this with workmen in my house. They are sanding at the moment. By hand. It’s not even all that noisy but it’s driving me crazy. The more I try to ignore it the louder it sounds. Earlier when I was proof-listening to a pod-cast the background hum didn’t bother me at all. Nor did it even enter my consciousness when I was having a telephone conversation. But now, now that I am trying to pull stuff out of my brain and onto the page it’s really distracting.

Large, exclusively open-plan workspaces can sometimes feel exactly the same.

The Tech industry and autism

IT is an industry that relies on people with specialist knowledge who are able to manipulate logic in intangible spaces. It’s an amazing feat. It has long been suspected that these same specialist brains are more likely to tend towards Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Aspergers Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism). A wide range of research now bears this out: In 1998, Baron-Cohen found that autism occurs more often in the families of physicists, engineers and mathematicians; in 2003, Wei’s research showed that ASD students at college were more likely to choose STEM subjects; in 2009 Windham found a correlation between children with autism and mothers in technical occupations, and in 2011 Roelfsema’s research suggested that there was significantly more autism in children living in tech rich regions, (to name just a few).

Famed autistic professor Temple Grandin recently told an audience at Google that without autistic traits they wouldn’t have any employees and asked them to consider at what point “geeks” and “nerds” becomes mild autism.

It’s a spectrum that we are all on somewhere. I have experienced autism first-hand – my eldest son is autistic and my sister (a clinical psychologist) and I agree that I am probably mildly autistic myself. I have had a successful IT career spanning more than 25 years (so far) during which I have met many others I now suspect to have undiagnosed autism. It is likely that, even if the following does not resonate directly with you, it describes the traits of someone(s) on your team or at very least in your department.

The senses

Often with ASD or ADHD (or sometimes all on its own) comes Sensory Processing Disorder (formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction).

Any of our seven senses can be over- or under- sensitively tuned and this will effect the way we interact with our environment. Bizarrely, some people may even be both over- and under-sensitive to different aspects of the same sense.  

Here are some examples:


People who are visually over-sensitive might struggle with bright lights and need specific contrast. One large organisation I worked at recently updated their workplace to be more modern and team-based, not realising that the fluorescent lighting they had put in would be too glary for some people to read black text on a white page (which was about half of what they did!). 

Visually stimulating environments can also make it really hard to concentrate. Last year my autistic son was taken to the headmaster’s office to complete an assessment and couldn’t concentrate because the second hand on the clock was red and kept “shouting at” him.

Some people have a related issue, which is trouble with visual discrimination.  This means that they are unable to filter out any visual input resulting in constant over stimulation, and an inability to focus on an individual object.

Conversely, someone who is under-sensitive to the visual might not notice even fairly prominent signs or posters – I’m sure we have all been frustrated by pushing a door and only noticing the large PULL sign on it after repeatedly failing to open it.


On my train today a fellow traveller had to move seat, unable to concentrate on what he was working on because another passenger was talking loudly.  Others around him were happily reading books and doing work - he was obviously sensitive to sound. Other aspects of sound sensitivity might include being easily spooked by sudden noises, or becoming tired and distracted in a workplace with a background hum. Such a person might need headphones or ear defenders to help with concentration, interesting at a time when we hear about organisations outlawing headphones altogether in an attempt to maximize collaboration.

What about the person speaking too loudly on the phone? Maybe he or she is under-sensitive to sound and so always talks a bit too loudly or doesn’t pick up on peripheral audio cues from the surroundings (muttering, coughs etc).

As with visual processing it is possible to have difficulties with auditory discrimination - i.e. being unable to filter out unimportant sounds.  This can make team meetings difficult, never mind the pub or a cocktail party.


Perhaps you have a keyboard basher or a fidgeter on your team? A person might be under-sensitive to touch and have to press really hard on their keyboard or even have a special keyboard that gives increased feedback. He or she might have to move around to make sure that their brain is getting the right signals from their feet about the fact they are standing up. Perhaps they need need to fiddle with something or chew something to keep their sense of touch stimulated at just the right level for them to feel the keyboard keys. They might even need a special cushion for their chair that is stippled.

Or maybe they have an over-sensitive sense of touch and can’t tolerate the labels in clothing so have to cut them out. Or perhaps can’t bear certain textures so asking them to wear any kind of team shirt might mean they get so much sensation from it they can’t concentrate on what is going on around them.


In a recent course we were asked to tickle each other on the face with feathers while we tried to concentrate on writing a simple sentence as an indication of how this would feel. 


A person who is over-sensitive to smell might be unable to tolerate certain smells or become distracted every time that timed air freshener goes off.  They may be the person who comments on your perfume or deodorant smelling good.

Or maybe they are insensitive to smell – they might not notice a gas leak or the smoke from a fire straight away. Perhaps they need gentle reminders about personal hygiene.


Those with an under-sensitive sense of taste are likely to love spicy or strongly-flavoured food. Maybe they add what others would consider way too much salt. Perhaps this is even effecting their health. When they cook, their food might be much too strong for others.

Alternatively, some might only tolerate the blandest of food. They might seem like picky eaters but in fact strong flavours are just too intense for them and feel like they are burning their mouth. Perhaps someone in your team avoids the team curry night, or can only manage a dhal and some naan bread.

Other senses

Some people have imbalance in one of the less well-known senses. Perhaps their proprioceptive system is under-sensitive, so they are not always certain where their body is in space, making them a bit clumsy and liable to trip over things or invade the personal space of others in their team.

Equally, their vestibular system might be out of whack a little meaning they need to move about and perhaps even spin around to get their inner ear to send their brain the right balancing messages.

Creative incubation

Now let’s imagine someone doesn’t have any of those imbalances. That by some miracle of biology their senses are perfectly tuned for the environment they are in.

This person is coding and hits a tricky problem. They try the head-on attack and are getting nowhere. They try drawing a diagram to help. Nope. They try talking to themselves. Still no help. They ask a buddy but they still aren’t getting anywhere.

For nearly 25 years we have known that software development takes a mixture of approaches. Sometimes we split the problem down and down until we find a manageable part that we can attack and then work our way back up the logic tree.  We have lots of different diagramming techniques that can help us with this hierarchical decomposition. Other times our minds jump around the problem space in quite an opportunistic way and we do more creative problem solving. This creative process needs an incubation space. I use the word space but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical space. It just needs the ability to get into a different mode. Remember those times you have suddenly realised what the solution was when you were in the shower or on a run? That’s incubation.

Introvert or Extrovert?

How about introverts? Being an introvert doesn’t mean an inability to collaborate effectively, but it might mean that doing so all day long will be pretty exhausting. Ten years ago when I studied pair programmers who paired “all the time” not a single pair came in at 9, sat straight at a desk with a pairing partner and dived in, working only in their pair until it was time to go home. They spent time apart, checking email, going to meetings, looking stuff up, having a tea-break. They agreed that pairing was pretty tiring.

At the other end of the scale, what about working alongside an extrovert, who thrives on collaboration and gains energy from working with people; someone who gets tired and de-motivated if left to work on their own for too long?

Recognising the need for diversity

So creative episodes intrinsic to software development need incubation space: introverts get exhausted by continual interaction with others whilst extroverts are in need of it; sensory needs differ from person to person; there is a higher proportion of autism in IT. Yet we assume that providing a vibrant, open-plan workspace will work for everyone all the time (or that the opposite - sterile cubicles – will).

What can we do to help? We can stop assuming that the same space will work for everyone all the time. We can provide lighting options. Allow pets in the workplace. Find appropriate ways of taking time out to make ourselves the creative space we need for problem solving. Create options that don’t make people feel uncomfortable: it is easier to say “I’m just going to make a coffee” than it is to say “I just need to move around a bit to re-establish where my body is in space”; it is easier to stroke the office dog than to say “I just need to re-calibrate my sense of touch so I can feel the keys on the keyboard when I code”; it’s easier to allow headphones at least some of the time than to expect everyone to be able to tune out the background hum of the open-plan workspace and pair programming teams. 

Some people might need to wear hats to help with the glare, or wear tinted sunglasses.  They might need a different type of chair, keyboard, cushion. They might even need to fiddle with something, chew or knit to help them think. Or draw.

Similarly people on the autism spectrum, and even many who aren’t, often find it helpful to talk quietly to themselves as they work through a problem. This phenomenon is formally known as self-explanation (in the work of Michelene Chi and others) and informally as the ‘rubber duck’ or ‘rubber plant’ method and it has been shown to help in solving step-by-step logic problems.

We can offer people options. We can start providing workplaces and spaces that allow us to be in different thinking modes: to collaborate intensely, and equally to incubate our thoughts in whatever way works for us. To provide shelter from or access to a sensory environment that will be best attuned to diverse needs. With just a little thought we can start to provide more inclusive workplaces that cater for all kinds of thinkers.

About the author

Dr. Sallyann Freudenberg is an agile coach and trainer who specializes in collaboration. She has been in I.T. for more than 25 years and holds a PhD in the Psychology of Collaborative Software Development.

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