Planning for Neurodiversity: NPC23 Planners' Day of Service

Each year, thousands of planners descend upon a host city for APA's National Planning Conference (NPC). Planners' Day of Service gives visiting planners an opportunity to positively impact NPC's host community while building and strengthening inter-divisional relationships, raising awareness of APA's Divisions, generating leadership development opportunities, and exchanging information about important planning issues.

This year's day of service, held on March 31, 2023, in Philadelphia, introduced participants to Planning for Neurodiversity. The event provided opportunities for professional development and knowledge transfer, a hands-on application of new skills, and a service project.

A Legacy of Service

Planners' Day of Service events have included:

  • NPC18 New Orleans — District B Neighborhood Clean Up
  • NPC19 San Francisco — Fruitvale TOD and Village Beautification Project
  • NPC22 San Diego — 47th Street Station Corridor Assessment and Clean Up
  • NPC23 Philadelphia — Planning for Neurodiversity

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the natural variation in the ways people experience, interact with, and interpret the world.

Sensory perception and cognitive abilities are spectrums; there are not "right" and "wrong" ways to experience and process the world around us. While we know that perceptions and senses are not binary, there are commonalities in the ways we perceive and receive sensory inputs; many people perceive similar sensory or cognitive experiences. We describe this as neurotypical.

The word "neurodiversity" is relatively new (coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998), but the experiences of people who are neurodiverse are not. Characteristics of neurodiversity have historically (and can still be) misinterpreted as learning disabilities, mental or emotional disorders, or behavioral problems. This framing perceives neurodiversity as a problem, weakness, or deficit to be fixed, cured, stifled, or repaired.

The characteristics of neurodiversity are not problems or diseases, but natural variations and strengths to be celebrated.

An inclusive approach to neurodiversity requires acknowledging, accepting, and accommodating a diversity of perceptions and experiences.

Strictly speaking, we are all neurodiverse because each of us experiences the world differently, falling somewhere on the continuous gradient of perception. But, when discussing planning for neurodiversity, we are elevating the needs of people who experience the world from outside of a neurotypical experience.

Leveraging the Power of Planning

Most planning professionals are familiar with the importance of physical accessibility in our communities (e.g., ramps for people using mobility devices, accessible pedestrian signals (APS), elevators, etc.). But sensory accessibility and other accommodations for people experiencing neurodiversity are not yet commonplace in our offices, public spaces, and built environments.

Planners are uniquely positioned to normalize sensory accessibility and implement accommodations for people experiencing neurodiversity.

What is Sensory Dysregulation?

Many people who are neurodiverse experience sensory dysregulation, meaning they receive, interpret, and process everyday sensory information such as sounds, sights, and smells much differently than someone who we would describe as neurotypical.

These differences, often unnoticed by or imperceptible to most people, can make certain environments challenging (or impossible) to endure for people experiencing sensory dysregulation.

Assessing our environments (for sights, sounds, feelings, smells, spatial orientation, signage, visual clutter, liminal spaces, and boundaries) and making reasonable accommodations dramatically improves quality of life for people with atypical sensory perception.

Planners can support more inclusive environments for people with neurodiversity in the same ways we support more inclusive environments for physical access by:

  • Assessing existing conditions
  • Identifying barriers and/or challenges to accessibility
  • Rectifying conditions limiting accessibility

A sensory audit identifies potential challenges and triggers, creating more accommodating, productive, and comfortable environments for people experiencing sensory dysregulation as a result of neurodiversity.

Sensory Audit

A sensory audit assesses the environment for barriers to sensory or cognitive accessibility. This may include:

  • Visual — Light (levels, flickering), reflections, colors, and patterns
  • Auditory — Repetitive sounds, lack of quiet spaces, acoustics, and echoes
  • Olfactory — Strong or unexpected smells or odors (exhaust, perfume, food, and chemicals)
  • Tactical — Fabrics, seating, and ambient temperatures
  • Spatial — Wayfinding, floor plans, furniture placement
  • Postural — Alternative work or rest spaces
  • Opportunities for sensory modulation — Quiet, comfortable spaces to recharge; handheld sensory tools to stimulate and/or calm the senses.

Day of Service Events

For the day of service, APA division members convened at the Downtown Philadelphia Marriott. Over the course of three hours planners were introduced to the concepts and language of neurodiversity and sensory accessibility, and participants discussed the planner's role in advancing neurodiversity acceptance, accessibility, and accommodations.

Attendees gained hands-on experience, knowledge, and tools to bring home to their own communities by participating in a group sensory audit of the Marriott hotel lobby, Reading Terminal Market, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Planners' Day of Service Participants conducted a sensory audit of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Credit: Women & Planning Division.

Planners' Day of Service Participants conducted a sensory audit of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Credit: Women & Planning Division.

For the service component for the day, participants assembled 100 Calming Kits (sensory friendly care packages) that we donated to Kamp for Kids, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization providing fun experiences for kids on the neurodiversity spectrum.

"Thank you so much for this wonderful gift! We plan on giving them [Calming Kits] out at our autism camp this summer and our autism groups at the Youth Center."
— Penni Morton, Kamp for Kids
Participants in the Planners' Day of Service assemble Calming Kits to donate to Kamp for Kids. Credit: APA Women & Planning Division.

Participants in the Planners' Day of Service assemble Calming Kits to donate to Kamp for Kids. Credit: APA Women & Planning Division.

Calming Kits

Calming Kits contain items to stimulate and/or soothe the senses, refocusing attention on the acts of feeling, smelling, hearing, and breathing. They are a useful tool to relieve anxiety, street, anger, or other unwanted emotions.

Calming Kits benefit all people, but they are especially useful to people who have difficulty regulating their senses and emotions because they are easily distracted or overwhelmed by external stimuli. This includes people who experience Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The items in a Calming Kit help relieve symptoms and promote self-care strategies. Managing stress is a difficult skill to master; Calming Kits are a way to practice emotional self-regulation skills. Even the act of retrieving the kit establishes a habit of stepping away from overwhelming problems before confronting them.

The Calming Kits created for Planners' Day of Service included mindfulness exercises, ear muffs, slime, play foam, "chewlery," scratch-n-sniff stickers, a soft washcloth, stretchy string, pop toys, fidget toys, pop tubes, and an emotion well to help talk about feelings.

Calming Kits included a variety of items to stimulate and soothe the senses. Credit: APA Women & Planning Division.

Calming Kits included a variety of items to stimulate and soothe the senses. Credit: APA Women & Planning Division.

Next Steps

The Women & Planning Division will continue raising awareness of the need for enhanced sensory and cognitive accessibility. Our findings from the sensory audit observations, NPC23 feedback, and sessions focused on neurodiversity will be used to develop a brief set of sensory accessibility recommendations, including instructions for performing a sensory audit. We hope that, over time, sensory accommodations become normalized in the same way that other, once rare accommodations (e.g., rooms for lactating parents), are now commonplace.


This year's Planners' Day of Service was an overwhelming success, in no small part due to the help and support of multiple APA Divisions, the Divisions Council, and individual APA members. Discussions about NPC24's service event are already underway. We hope to see you next year for the Planners' Day of Service in Minneapolis.

Planners' Day of Service is an initiative conceived and led by APA Divisions, and supported by Divisions Council grant funding. This year's event was led by the Women & Planning Division, with additional financial and in-kind support from the Environment, Natural Resources and Energy Division; International Division; Planning and the Black Community Division; Small Town and Rural Planning Division; and the Transportation Planning Division. For more information or to participate in and/or support NPC24 Planners' Day of Service, please email us.


Please use the resources below to learn more about neurodiversity, sensory dysregulation, and sensory accessibility.

"ADHD and the Built Environment." The Working Brain.

Autim Planning and Design Guidelines 1.0. PAS Memo (July 2018)

Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience. National Autistic Society. YouTube (2017)

"Design for the Mind - A Toolkit for Cognitive Inclusion." BBC (March 2020).

Designing for Neurodiversity.

Hiring Neurodiverse People to Enhance Planning Teams. APA blog (2022).

"'It Is a Big Spider Web of Things': Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults in Public Spaces." Autism in Adulthood (2022).

Enabling Spaces: Neurodiversity-Friendly Living Spaces and Working Places. Neurodiverity Hub.

Neurodiversity and Sensory Design. The Working Brain.

OCD + The Built Environment. The Working Brain.

"Senses of Place: Architectural Design for the Multisensory Mind." Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (2020).

Sensory Audit for Schools and Classrooms. Education Scotland.

Sensory Environment Checklist. BBC and UX&D CAPE.

Sensory Sensitivities. La Trobe University and Old Tennison Autsim Research Centre (2020).

"Supporting a Neurodiverse Workforce: A Mental Health and Well-Being Resource and Training Package Final Report." La Trobe University and Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre.

"Thinking Differently: Neurodiversity in the Workplace." HULT Research


Top image: Members of the Planners' Day of Service pose for a photo at NPC23. Photo credit: Women & Planning Division.

ABout the author
Caroline Dwyer, AICP, is chair of APA's Women & Planning Division.

April 14, 2023

By Caroline Dwyer, AICP