Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman in a red dress with a black headband and a smiling woman with purple hair and glasses against a natural background with the words "Designing for Neurodiversity Inclusivity" above them.

Designing For Neurodiversity Inclusivity with María Emilia Lasso de la Vega – Episode #25

How can we design inclusive spaces—physically and virtually—that support neurodiversity? The Disability Justice movement is increasing the recognition and adoption of inclusive spaces and accessible interaction for people who are neurodivergent and on the autism spectrum. It continues, however, to rely largely on individuals to disclose their diagnoses in spaces where they may initially be uncertain of support.

Episode Show Notes

In this episode, María Emilia Lasso de la Vega, the Training and Programs Facilitator and Technical Facilitation Manager at Ethos, speaks with Alida about her holistically inclusive approach to taking care of others. She incorporates inclusive design practices to erect both physical and digital spaces that accommodate every person, regardless of where they fall under the neurodiversity umbrella. 

Learn to meet every person’s unique needs by:

  • Leading with genuine interest to discover the needs of every person in your care
  • Considering inclusivity from the start when creating any program
  • Incorporating the seven principles of inclusive design

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with María Emilia: 

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


MARIA EMILIA: I would sometimes invite students into my space, and I made sure my lights were never too bright, I had sensory toys always available on my desk, and I had an option for them to be able to sit, not kind of facing me, but kind of diagonal, so there was not that pressure for them to look at me straight in the face. So, those are very simple things that I started putting into practice.


ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.

How can we design inclusive spaces, physically and virtually, that support neurodiversity? This is a question that I deal with a lot here at ethos, and whenever it comes up, I am consulting with my colleague, María Emilia Lasso de la Vega, who runs training and programs here at ETHOS and specializes in creating inclusive design practices that ultimately support people wherever they fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, either physically or digitally. I’m so excited for you all to have a chance to learn some of María Emilia’s tried and true techniques and incorporate them into your own care work. Hello, María Emilia. Welcome to the Care Work podcast.

MARIA EMILIA: Hi. Thank you for having me here Alida.

ALIDA: One of the reasons I was so excited to invite you onto the show today was because,


 I see a lot of the work that you do with technology, disability and accessibility as a kind of care work. But that’s my interpretation and perspective. So I want to ask you, when you hear the term care work, what do you think? How do you define that?

MARIA: There’s a couple of ways to look at it. So, I am somebody who definitely prefers to show care to others in the ways that they prefer to be cared for. So, I’m very much on that perspective of like, you’re asking me to do something, or I notice that you need support in a space I will be stepping in. So, basically just kind of fill in the blanks in a relationship. And the other way that I think about care is more about showing, like, very close attention to something. So not just showing care to people, but the work that I do, is another way that I think about care work, because I think it’s a way. Of still showing care to others. If the work that I’m doing or projects that I’m working on are done with care.

ALIDA: Well, and I think this is a good chance to also talk about your journey to this very specific form of service. You are in Panama, that’s where you’re from. You grew up in Panama. And as a person growing up in Panama, what did you think you would be doing by this point in your life?

MARIA EMILIA: I definitely had very different thoughts growing up. I actually thought I was going to be a 3d animator and I was going to be working in, like, Disney, Pixar, you know, the giant studios. And I think as I started getting more and more involved in higher education, where I started my career, everything started shifting and I think my vision of myself started changing. I started noticing that I really enjoyed caring for others in a very direct and indirect way. So, I started working in higher education and residential life. So, I used to work in residence halls and dormitories as an RA and also as a hall director and the way that care works there is very interesting because there are parameters for how you care for others, but also there’s a lot of opportunity for you to kind of insert some of that. So, when I started as an RA, I thought I was going to be doing something like that for the rest of my life and then I kind of got burnt out on it and I took a different direction. So, I think almost every year, my vision of who I am going to be continues to shift and change. So, I don’t think I have a very specific answer to say, like, this is what I saw myself doing and this is what I’m doing now, because it just consistently changes every time I encountered a new experience that I enjoy.

ALIDA: And I think one of the through lines for you, in addition to art making and using technology to make art, is dance. And so I wonder what your relationship to dance has been throughout your life, especially as we talk about things like accessibility and disability.

MARIA EMILIA: Yeah, so I think it’s very interesting that you bring that up because, for me, dance was kind of, I wouldn’t say it was much of a hobby growth like when I was younger, it was very much a thing that I was made to do and slowly became more and more involved in it and fell in love with it. However, I think from the perspective of care, it really started once they started making me a support teacher for the younger girls. So, I was teaching three, four, sometimes two year olds. So we were doing a lot of classes that’s two teachers, usually for about fifteen girls, which is a pretty large class, given that I was also around 14-15 around that time. And I learned a lot about caring for younger children at that time. I had parents come to me and say, like, oh, this is how you talk to the kids, this is how you support them and I definitely learned a lot about childhood development and movement. Like, our two year olds would sit down and just play with their props, while we had some four year olds that were just very attentive, engaged. So definitely got a lot to see of that development. 

When I went to college, I also had a minor in dance, and one of my instructors, she actually used to teach to people with dementia, and it was specifically for that. It was about the movement and the therapy and what can you do? So she used to teach people like, it was a seated class. So all the patients that were part of this institution had the opportunity to sit down and still move their bodies and use it for communicating, and use it to just release their bodies and be able to continue to do things in a very fun environment. And that’s something that I have always wanted to be able to do at some point. 

I also grew up very religious, and I have attended several classes where there’s praise dancing, and I think that’s also very therapeutical because you get away from that sense of being just in your head and really like, get into that body space and be able to show more of your emotions, of how you’re being impacted by it. So, I think dance, to me, is something that can replace meditation. It’s something that can replace even mindfulness, because I think it truly, truly puts you in a mindful state. And I think it’s a great way to take care of yourself, especially if it’s something that you already enjoy.

ALIDA: And I think you’ve had to be very creative in terms of the different roles that you’ve taken on in thinking through how to actually get through to people who might have different needs. I always remember when you were interviewing for ETHOS, and we were in our first interview together, I asked you about your philosophy on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And at the time, you were a facilitator in diversity, equity and inclusion and did not use that as the example. You specifically talked about the work that you did with students in higher education, starting with being an RA, and how that set you on a path to thinking differently about students and their needs. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

MARIA EMILIA: Absolutely. I spent time as an RA noticing a lot of the differences between maybe the hallway that I was in charge of and the hallways that my other colleagues were in charge of. My first assignment, my first year as an RA, I was actually in charge of a hall that was all upperclassmen and grad students. So, I had students that were 30, some years old, and I was like, Hello, I am, um, 20. So it was very interesting to start from that place of kind of learning how different the needs of the people in my area were, because most of my colleagues had freshmen. So it was a more homogeneous group. My group was definitely very, very, varied, if I can say it that way. I had a lot of international students. Most grad students were international, as well. 

So, there was a lot of learning that took place on how can I cater to each one of these people, especially when I’m trying to get them to go to campus events, when I’m trying to get them to go to the resources that they need? Because there was a student that lived across the hall from me, and he was very much into fitness. So anytime there was some sort of fitness event, I knew that it was very easy for me to be like, here’s a resource. Let’s go here. Let’s do this. Let’s get engaged. Let’s do things. And then I would have other students that were like, I am very much into my research and everything that I’m doing, I don’t have time to be going to these things. But then this student was Turkish. So as soon as there was a multicultural event that was focused on Turkish culture, I would be like, you’re coming with me because I want to learn more about you. And I know that you’re going to enjoy this space because you’re going to get to meet other students that have similar backgrounds from you, which is not very common, especially in that space, especially if you’re a grad student who’s always in your lab doing research with your faculty members. 

And then they switched me to all freshmen and I feel like that was even more difficult for me because the students were in a space where either they felt like they really needed me, so they very much relied on me to provide them all the support that I needed. And then there were some that just were like, I don’t want to talk to anybody I want to be by myself. I’m so happy I’m finally in college and I don’t have somebody nagging me and now you’re coming along. So, there was definitely a much steeper learning curve to be able to support those students who did not want to be supported. I definitely had several students who were on the autism spectrum. The university that I started working at was very well known for the high population of students who are neurodiverse and have disclosed that they are as well, and I think that’s a very important distinction because I think the population is high everywhere you go, but self disclosing that information through the Office of Disability Services or just as they’re enrolling, actually, they have the option to kind of check that box if they would like to. I actually had a lot of interactions with parents, like as they were moving in, parents coming in, letting me know, disclosing, sharing what their kids needed. And it was definitely a great experience to see these parents feel like they could leave their kids in a college dorm or in a residence hall and know that there was somebody there that could keep tabs on them.

ALIDA: One of the things we’ve talked about is there’s something really different about having students who’ve disclosed that they are neurodivergent and being able to design and plan for them, versus having to prepare yourself for students where what their needs are aren’t disclosed. Can you talk about some of the things that you learned to do, some of the practices that you put in place based on having a population of students who had disclosed that you consider to be valuable to just integrate in any setting that you’re in where that level of disclosure may not be happening?

MARIA EMILIA: My approach is to just assume that everybody needs an accommodation and to look at it from that perspective. So, I have slowly started integrating the things that I used to put in place just for neurodiverse students or students with disabilities in general, and just start applying and offering that to basically everything that I do anywhere from, I could tell that if I had students that were on the autism spectrum that it would benefit them if I sent them two or three meeting reminders, just because it’s not part of their actual routine, if there’s a meeting in their calendar, that it’s not there every week or every day. 

I started doing that for my other students because even though they may or may not be neurodiverse or have another need for support, they’re still students and younger. They still are working towards finding themselves or working towards finding their path. So an additional reminder is never an issue. Things like, I think I grew up being told a lot that I needed to look people in the eyes when I talked to them, and I know that makes me uncomfortable sometimes. So, I never expected students to look at me. I would sometimes invite students into my space and I made sure my lights were never too bright. I had sensory toys always available on my desk, and I had an option for them to be able to sit, not kind of facing me, but kind of diagonal, so there was not that pressure for them to look at me straight in the face. So those are very simple things that I started putting into practice in my office space. 

I also made sure I didn’t have that many scents in my room because smells can get overwhelming. If it was really loud outside, I made sure I would close my door. I would always ask students if they would prefer doors open or closed. I had my monitor set up in a way where I could turn it around. So, if I was talking to them about a resource or something, I had the ability to show them what it looked like, not just tell them. If there was another meeting they needed to go to or another resource they needed support for, I made sure that I asked them to take their phone or their notebook out so they could write it down while they were in the space with me, because we can’t rely on just memory for a lot of things. 

Another thing that we would do is if we ever had to take a student to the counseling or cris center or the health center and they had been in our office, we would just drive them in a little golf cart so that they wouldn’t have to kind of walk by themselves, figure it out. We would go with them. We would offer a student to walk with them, if they didn’t feel comfortable with a full time staff member walking with them, there’s just a lot of little things that started going into place when I would talk to my RA staff, so the students that I supervised, I would make it very clear that deadlines, as much as I respect them, and I really appreciated them, that they’re not supposed to be a source of anxiety, especially when you’re already a student. 

So, we would work with them, um to figure out, okay, if this deadline is not working out for you, why? And what do we do about it? And I think that is probably one of the biggest accommodations I just kind of shared with everyone. I would never really get upset if a student didn’t show up to a meeting, because I know that it could either be because, they forgot, or it’s actually pretty common for people with depression to forget a lot of things. So providing something like that and say, you know, it’s okay if you miss this meeting, let’s find another way. And what can we do to make sure that you’re making it to a meeting or a check in next time. Do I need to knock on your door? Does your RA need to knock on your door? Do you need a phone call? A text message? What would help you? And I think that’s the last practice I’m going to say that I started really bringing into the spaces that I was working in, was asking the student what they think they needed and providing options for what I think could be helpful, because that way, if they already know a technique that works for them they can share it with me, but if they don’t, they have some sort of option to let me know what They need in that situation.

ALIDA: We spent a lot of time talking about in person interactions, but I think it’s worth bringing up that you pursued your master’s in part because you were so interested in what it looks like to learn and grow in virtual or remote settings. And so I wonder if we can talk a little bit more about what it looks like to set up an inclusive environment that’s fully digital.

MARIA EMILIA: It is something that should be started from the moment that you decide you are going to be creating that space. I think a lot of the time, people really focus on the creation of the space first. What you’re going to be doing, then at the end you’re like, okay, how do we make sure that this is accessible to all? And I think that’s the incorrect approach, because you end up having to do double the work most of the time, because you end up having to rework some of the things that you have already done and redesign them if you start from that perspective of I know that there are thousands of people who could be finding themselves interacting with this from the get go, and I know that they’re all going to have different needs, it’s going to be a lot easier, because then it’s embedded into your process and design. So, there are principles for inclusive design that just kind of help guide what you do. There are things that you can keep in mind, 

I think my favorite principle of all time for inclusive design is just tolerance for error. So if you’re ever in a space where this helps me, even if I don’t have a disability and I’m just a facilitator in a session, if I have the ability to pivot and change, if I make a mistake in my tech space, that’s the best thing I can do for myself and for my participants and the people that are in the room listening to me. So if something, an error is very simple, like, do I allow people in the chat, in Zoom to delete their chat because they made a typo or maybe they were trying to send a private message and now they realize they sent it to the world. That is inclusive design. I know that they’re going to feel comfortable because now they know that they can retract something that they did. I know that I usually use the example of like, if you’re ever about to submit a form online and you type everything and you respond and you hit submit, and then you realize that something was wrong in it and you can’t go back and change it, it’s probably one of the most frustrating experiences that you can have. However, if I hit submit and then the form either catches mistakes for me or it tells me, here’s all the information you type, review it before you submit it, and if you do make a mistake, here’s how to fix it. I am immediately going to feel more at peace and calm because I know that even if I make a mistake, I have the opportunity to fix it in that digital space.

ALIDA: Well, and you’re talking about The 7 Principles of Universal Design. So I wonder if we’re talking about the fact that tolerance for error is one of the seven principles, but then we have others, right? We have equitable use, we have flexibility in use, we have perceptible information, we have simple and intuitive, we’ve got low physical effort, and we’ve got size and space for approach and use. Can you talk about what these are and how they show up?

MARIA EMILIA: Yeah, absolutely. So the first principle is equitable use, and that just means that whatever is being created can be used by basically anybody. It doesn’t mean that you need to have a specific need to be able to take advantage of that. So in a digital space, that can be something like Closed Captioning. So some people may absolutely need Closed Captioning because they may be deaf or hard of hearing, or maybe they have an auditory processing disorder. So, that is an accommodation I’m putting in place as part of my design. But that doesn’t mean I am somebody who really enjoys closed captioning. So, people who just like to have it, maybe you’re in a very loud space at the time and you can’t quite hear what the facilitators are saying. So again, it’s equitable. You don’t need to have a disability or have some sort of other type of need to actually use it. So it’s just equitable across and again great practices to put into place. 

When something that’s flexible in use is basically you can use the same tool in different ways. So if we’re thinking about a live transcript that we’re generating for a meeting, some people, again, you can use it if you have an auditory processing disorder or deaf  or hard of hearing, so you can follow along in a more kind of text heavy way. Or maybe you’re somebody who really enjoys taking notes in that way you want to highlight. So, there’s several ways to use a transcript in a session or in a meeting. That’s what you want. You don’t want people to only have to use it a very specific way. You want people to be able to adapt to their surroundings and use the tool in whatever way serves them at that time. 

Simple and intuitive use is the third principle and basically it just makes things to you as easy to use as possible. So we use Zoom for a lot of our training. The Closed Captioning button. It’s literally a giant “cc” Closed Captioning button at the bottom of the screen. It is very easy to find. You just click it once and it’s set. You don’t have to worry about it, you don’t have to go and find it somewhere else. As facilitators usually spend the time explaining how to find it and how to go to it, we include images and descriptions. However, it’s very intuitive to know that if you want Closed Captioning, all you have to do is click that button. So make it very easy. 

The same thing whenever we’re generating a spreadsheet for a client. If the spreadsheet is labeled correctly and they know what they’re looking for and we highlight the places where they need to put numbers or where they need to input data, making it as simple and as easy. So there should be zero mental load to completing a task. That’s basically what we’re going for whenever we’re looking about intuitive use. 

Perceptible information is the fourth principle. That just means that it doesn’t matter your ability level, cognitive or physical, it is easy to find the information that you need. So if you think about whenever you’re using, let’s say Google Slides, there is a very obvious help button that you can go to if you’re looking for something specific and it can do a couple of things for you. If you’re searching for a specific tool, it will find it for you, it’ll tell you where it is and you can just click it and use it or it’ll open a browser, everybody knows what that button is for. You know how to find it, where to use it, how to use it, when to use it. So that’s what you’re looking for. You want information to be accessible, and even if it isn’t, find a way to make it obvious to the user how to find that information. Tolerance for error I already talked about. We just want to make sure that even if you make a mistake, you can correct it. 

Principle six is low physical effort. So this, in the digital space, may not be as obvious, because when we think low physical effort, we’re thinking of something like, if we’re using a scooter for our knee so that we can move around, then that the brakes are close to where your hands are and that the wheels move really smoothly so that you don’t have to push that hard with your working leg or things like that. When we’re in a digital space, low physical effort means, how hard is it for me to find something that I know that I am going to need? So, a practice that we put into work at ETHOS is we share our deck and worksheet that we’re utilizing during sessions, in the chat box, during the session, and anytime we start an exercise, we’ll either drop in the prompts for the exercise or we’ll drop another link to the worksheet we’re continuously sharing that information because all they have to do is go to the checkbox and click it. They don’t have to go back to the email that got sent to them. They don’t have to ask for it, it’s just there. We’re just making it as accessible and reachable as possible. 

And then last but not least, is the size and space for approach and use. And all that means is you want to make sure that whatever you’re creating fits into the environment that the person it’s going to be in. So tools like Zoom can be used from a handheld device if somebody is in a smaller space, they can be used in a computer, if they can have a giant screen, and you still have access to most of the functionality in those tools. So, that’s something that you want to keep in mind. Also, the other thing is something like a scooter for your knee is created for maybe moving around a lot so that’s the space it’s meant to be used in. So that’s something you also want to keep in mind when you’re generating something, what’s the space? 

So I know, Alida, I remember we were working on a session, and you were like, I’m worried that we’re going to have a really large screen in front of like 500 people, and this table has too much information. Can we break it up into two? So you are thinking about the space that your information is going to be in, your materials are going to be in, and you’re keeping that in mind and you’re making adjustments as you go, because we are going to make mistakes we are not going to be perfect for the first time but keeping those things in mind is really helpful whenever you are creating something.

ALIDA: Well, I want to say thank you so much for being here today on our show. And I want to ask, where can people find you? What should they do if they have questions or want to connect?

MARIA EMILIA: Absolutely. My inbox is always open. You can message me at, or you can also find me on LinkedIn. You can find my whole name, María Emilia Lasso de la Vega, or you can do the and you should be able to find me.

ALIDA: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you.

MARIA EMILIA: Appreciate you too. Thank you so much, Alida.


ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.

This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.

Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.

Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.

Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.

Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.



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