Time’s Executioner

four faces looking up, down, sideways, and forward.

Who’s the decider?

Elizabeth needed a car. She’d settled on a Nissan–same as her sister’s. They came in three colors–gold, white, and blue. She didn’t want gold, which her sister had. She couldn’t bear the thought of white. But did she want blue?

The decision kept her paralyzed for a year.

Many of us take the ability to make decisions for granted. We don’t even articulate the thought processes we use to decide on the blue Nissan; most of the work happens intuitively. This is called executive function.

When a person struggles with executive function, it often indicates that their brains are handling information differently. We call this a neurodiverse brain function pattern, as when someone is on the autism spectrum, has ADHD, or another difference in brain organization.

Neurotypical Brain

{IMAGE: wooden ruler}

Intuitive, simple front-end interface.

  • Intuitive
  • Filters information according to hierarchy
  • Easy to focus
  • Resilient

Neurodiverse Brain

All the processing is done on the front end.

  • Takes in much more discrete information, consciously
  • Not filtered according to hierarchy
  • Easily distracted or overwhelmed

You Don’t Know What’s Automatic

When we decide on the blue Nissan, we are using several hierarchical criteria to make that choice.

  1. We need a car NOW (time hierarchy).
    • We can’t get around town easily without one.
    • Time spent deciding is time with limited freedom.
  2. We only have three choices (space hierarchy).
    • Other colors aren’t readily available, so we don’t need to consider red, gray, beige, etc.
  3. Two out of three options aren’t acceptable (dealbreaker hierarchy).
    • Gold is identical to our sister’s, and we don’t want to be twins.
    • White gets dirty easily and looks bad.
  4. Once all the other options have been eliminated, we are left with only one choice.

To a neurodiverse brain, none of these hierarchies are intuitive or obvious.

Un-Stuck in Time

Friends with neurodiverse brains have told me that it often feels like they are living in the eternal present. Things happen around them, but it feels like watching someone dancing in a strobe light–a series of poses that might be connected, but there’s no linear path that they can track.

So although they are taking in much more granular information, it has no sense of context. It’s difficult to track time and space, because every bit of data is allocated the same significance. There are no standards with which they can measure things, in order to choose. “I might not like driving a blue car” is equally weighted with “I need a car now.”

Decisions Kill Things Off

The root of the word ‘decision’ is the Latin verb ‘caedo‘ meaning ‘cut, hew, chop, kill.’ This is also the root of the word ‘executive,’ and ‘execution’. When we make a decision, we are killing off all the other possibilities.

The neurodiverse brain has a big problem with that.

This is why neurodiverse minds are so valuable. Because neurotypicals, with single-minded focus, will kill things off without even seeing them. Things like biodiversity, sources of energy, solutions to problems we don’t even see coming. Whole civilizations.

We Need One Another

So what does this have to do with interior design?

Two things.

First, one of the major things that Practical Sanctuary does for our sensory design clients is to track, rank and organize the decision-making process, so that the project flows without becoming overwhelming. This happens before a single fixture is installed, wall is painted or furnishing ordered.

And second, we help our clients set up spaces so that support their superpowers of observation, analysis and insight. We provide pathways and physical cues that assist with focus and cut down on overwhelm.

So that one day, the neurodiverse will save our planet.


Weaver house: Arched alcove with Moroccan lamp, architectural drawing, cat door

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