Neuroception and Sensory Load: Our Complex Sensory Experiences

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A person that is exploding with sparks from the inside out holds a cordless drill to their own temple, which is also producing sparks.
A person that is exploding with sparks from the inside out holds a cordless drill to their own temple, which is also producing sparks.
Sensory Overload by Alexis Quinn

Neurodivergent people are hypersensitive to mindset and environment due to a greater number of neuronal connections. They have both a higher risk for trauma and a large capacity for sensing safety.

Neuroception and the 3 Part Brain
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🫀🧠💥 Neuroception and Sensory Load

Before we proceed to the next accessibility checklist, let’s learn about neuroception and sensory load.

Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.

The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity

Part of our neuroception is genetic. Neurodivergent people have heightened neuroception from birth or before birth.

Danger cues that are very painful to a neurodivergent person may be neutral or pleasant to someone else.

How to Use the Polyvagal Ladder. A set of graphics

Neurodivergent people are hypersensitive to mindset and environment due to a greater number of neuronal connections. They have both a higher risk for trauma and a large capacity for sensing safety.

Neuroception and the 3 Part Brain

Psychological safety is increasingly recognised as central to mental health & wellbeing. The polyvagal theory offers a ‘Science of Safety’ which can help inform clinical practice to promote wellbeing, resilience & post-traumatic growth, whilst mitigating trauma.

Developing a standardised measure of psychological safety.
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To have my needs met as an autistic person would have transformed my experience in hospital. The sensory input added to my emotional dysregulation. I couldn’t engage with all the therapy on offer because of the added distress. Small changes would have made a big difference.

Emily

A person draped in a blanket with sunglasses is observing several highly stimulating light sources . The incorporated subtext reads ” The bright lights in the hospital where overwhelming -Jamie”

Image credit: Sam Chown-Ahern

If someone is autistic, they should get a sensory assessment. It was so important for me to understand myself and how I regulate.

Charli

Image credit: Sam Chown-Ahern

Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.

THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person.  A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students.  Deafening noise.  The stench of different smells.  The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes.  School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.

In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to.  It’s so hard.  My brain doesn’t want to tune the rest of the noise out.  Apparently I’ve been asked something, but I miss it.  The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me.  The intense stares overwhelm me.  The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin.  Only six more hours of hell to go…. only six….

Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without ‘time out’ to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day.  Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.

We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago.  Not a hope now.

Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?

What  schools need to do is to understand autism.  In understanding it, we can help to stop putting the children in pain and exhaustion.  It’s actually quite easy.  And quite cheap.

Make sure your school is getting really good autism training, from autistic experts and our allies.

Notice I said ‘autistic experts”…  People who can detect what’s happening in that environment, using similar sensory systems to the pupil.  People who can explain autistic language and culture.  Yes, there is a different autistic language, a different autistic culture.  In the same way as it’s important to respect the culture of children from different ethnicities, it’s important to know about, and respect, autistic culture and communication style also.

Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?

Sometimes I need a mind/body break. I need to be alone, I need to be in my head, and I need to stim. I stim by flapping my arms and clapping my hands while pacing. Stimming is a necessary part of sensory regulation. Stimming helps keep me below meltdown threshold. “Stimming is a natural behavior that can improve emotional regulation and prevent meltdowns in stressful situations.” “Let them stim! Some parents want help extinguishing their child’s self-stimulatory behaviors, whether it’s hand-flapping, toe-walking, or any number of other “stimmy” things autistic kids do. Most of this concern comes from a fear of social stigma. Self-stimulatory behaviors, however, are soothing, relaxing, and even joy-inducing. They help kids cope during times of stress or uncertainty. You can help your kids by encouraging parents to understand what these behaviors are and how they help.
Please proceed with what you are doing when I take a sensory break. I will observe from the edges and rejoin you when I am able.

We’re Autistic. Here’s what We’d like you to know.

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns.

Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Needless to say, the dining hall, as well as being busy, crowded and a source of multiple odours, was also very noisy, as trays were picked up and clattered back down, cutlery jangled, and metal serving dishes clanged against metal hot plates. Meanwhile, the children, squeezed into rows of tiny seats bolted on to collapsible dining tables, grew louder and louder to make themselves heard over the racket. Indeed, the lunch queue alone can be the place where sensory problems ‘can turn into a nightmare’ (Sainsbury 2009, p.99). Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, all of the child contributors to this book – Grace, James, Rose and Zack – identified noise and crowds as being the most difficult aspects of school from a sensory point of view.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

Autistic participants, who reported significantly higher sensory processing scores than Control participants, consistently reported higher levels of discomfort in both their home and workplace environments, feeling more overwhelming, stressed, and distracted, and less safe than the Control group in both environments. Though shopping malls, supermarkets, other retail and medical buildings are all essential buildings that people need to frequent to meet material needs and stay healthy, they all caused greater discomfort and distress for Autistic participants, who also avoided them more often. The odds of an Autistic participant avoiding buildings was 8.8 times greater than the Control group. Higher discomfort and distress reported by Autistic participants in office buildings may affects the low employment rates in this population.

People and People Noise were the IEQ factors that, across multiple environments, were rated as highest as a cause of discomfort and avoidance and had the largest difference between Autistic and Control participants, followed by Glare and Electric Light. Meanwhile, Temperature was rated equally highly by both groups, having a large effect but no difference between groups, with a similar trend seen in Air Quality and Air Movement.

Autistic people already struggle with social isolation, early mortality, and low employment rates, which are likely compounded by greater sensory stress from the built environment.

The Impact of Indoor Environment Quality on People on the Autism Spectrum

🤢 In Our Own Words: The Complex Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults

“Bright lights such as ceiling lights are unbearable and make me feel very stressed.”

SE007

“In a crowded place I need to put my hands over my ears. I feel sick and can’t focus on anything.”

SE027

“I’m easily startled by sound or touch, sounds physically hurt me.”

SE017

“Smelling a strong smell is like being tortured, time stops and I’m nearly sick.”

SE008

“I never go into supermarkets because of visual overload…”

SE048

“Going to grocery-store is the worst. The lights are always very bright and there are so many details to see. I cannot go in there without sunglasses and a baseball cap. Generally being outside when the sun is out is also hard. That is why I always have my sunglasses with me.”

SE032

“I am very sensitive to all noise, including electrics being on in the bedroom at night i.e., hum of electricity going to the alarm clock. I turn off everything possible and spend time in my quiet bedroom when life gets too noisy.”

SE029

“I seek comfort in small things (such as nice textures, I currently have a coin that I keep in my pocket to hold when I’m nervous) so that I can filter the sensory environment. It helps distract me from what is happening around me so that when I seek that input, I can avoid more intense or unpleasant inputs.”

SE018

“I can become overwhelmed in busy, crowded places. Often in these situations I will feel like everything around me is moving faster and feel a kind of disconnect (maybe even dissociation?) from it all.”

SE037

“Sunlight is overwhelming in the summer and I can’t stand being out for too long… I also can’t stand bright overhead lighting in shops and tend to leave as quickly as possible. Lower overhead lighting is worse and fluorescent is unbearable…”

SE029

“A busy visual field causes overload and causes agitation and stimming. I struggle to focus on specific components and take in the entire field, being aware of every movement.”

SE016

“With multiple conversations… my experience is similar to listening to a radio station that then blends into the other one, so you’re constantly hearing every other word of the radio station, until at some point the streams completely overlap, but somehow in complete clarity. This, along with all the loud environmental noise (which may seem like nothing to most people – air conditioning humming, projector buzzing, lights buzzing, plates clinking in a restaurant kitchen), can drive me into a shutdown. And then every sound is utterly overwhelming.”

SE040

“I have to check the texture of fabrics when I’m clothes shopping. Anything rough or crunchy I can’t wear. I also need soft and stretchy fabrics.”

SE038

“I don’t like unexpected touch from other people. I prefer firm touch to light touch.”

SE011

“I’m touch sensitive. I hate other people touching me. My skin crawls, I sweat excessively, and I feel nausea. Especially if it’s bare skin. Makes intimacy nigh on impossible.”

SE030

“I am very particular about tastes. I only like quite bland foods and can’t stand any kind of spice. I will find a food unbearably spicy that others say has no spice to it at all. I used to find fizzy drinks too intense when I was younger.”

SE011

“I have had to quit jobs and refuse assignments due to my being hyperreactive to scents… My aversion to strong, unpleasant scents is so strong that it triggers my gag reflex, can make me throw up, makes me cry, and makes me escape the environment. I have tried but have no control over it. Changing nappies for my kids was challenging. Usually my husband did it. If my kids vomited, the smell made me vomit.”

SE031

“There are numerous occasions where I was looking for an item which was in plain sight however I it took a long time to find it.”

SE003

“I can get lost in visual patterns. When I was little one of the churches, we sometimes attended had a patterned coving and I would spend the whole service visually following the infinite line that formed the pattern.”

SE010

“Music calms me down when I’m stressed. Tend to listen to the same song on repeat for hours at a time.”

SE022

“Fluffy textures calm me. I have a fluffy blanket in the car to help manage my anxiety on car journeys and one I carry in my bag to calm me on other occasions.”

SE016

“It is extremely difficult to provide me with enough, let alone too much, deep pressure. Sometimes I will ask my husband for a tight hug and even the tightest hug he can provide is insufficient to satisfy me. Often, I need him to lie on top of me to provide added pressure.”

SE046

Sensory experiences can be complex and although some sensory experiences can be enjoyable for individuals, other experiences can be very distressing (Elwin et al., 2012; Forsyth & Trevarrow, 2018). In particular, sensory hyperreactivity can greatly impact quality of life and has been found to correlate with clinically elevated levels of anxiety in both autistic children and adults (Carpenter et al., 2018; Green et al., 2012; Green & Ben-Sasson, 2010; Hwang et al., 2019; MacLennan et al., 2020). It is therefore unsurprising that aversive sensory environments have been suggested to be a barrier for autistic adults engaging in spaces, both public and occupational (Amos et al., 2019). Therefore, understanding the complexities of sensory experiences has important implications for autistic people’s physical and mental wellness, social inclusion, and future prospects.

PsyArXiv Preprints | In our own words: The complex sensory experiences of autistic adults

🎪 Sensory Environment Checklist

We believe that autistic people are uniquely qualified to review environments for themselves or for other autistic people as they live in an ‘alternate sensory reality’ (Grandin and Panek 2016) to the neurotypical population.

Considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic people in housing | Local Government Association

This checklist is intended to support improvements to the sensory environment.

Wherever possible, we encourage the involvement of autistic people in reviewing sensory environments. We believe that autistic people are uniquely qualified to review environments for themselves or for other autistic people as they live in an ‘alternate sensory reality’ (Grandin and Panek 2016) to the neurotypical population.

We offer some general suggestions that will help to reduce the sensory input. We hope that this will be helpful to lots of people. It can be used in shared houses as well as individual homes.

It is possible to use parts of this document but not others, depending on individual sensory needs. It is possible that not all parts will be relevant to everyone, please feel free to use the parts that are helpful.

We identify common sensory challenges as well as some suggested solutions.

We recommend considering all senses in every space – including entrances. Slow down, walk through, pause in each space, what do you notice?

We explain these elements in more detail in the report, please read this for further information. This checklist is intended as a practical summary to support those considering and reviewing environments.

Considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic people in housing | Local Government Association

Below are our recommendations for small changes that can be made to an environment to improve the sensory experiences and wellbeing of autistic people.

brown human eye

Sight

Sound

close up photography of woman smelling pink rose

Smell and Taste

close up photo of a person s hand touching body of water

Touch

👁 Sight

green yellow brown and blue stained glass

“Light and colour can provide stimulation and joy – for instance, stained glass can be used for small windows receiving direct sunlight.”
Angela

Sight | Local Government Association

Visual stimulation can be a source of comfort and joy and can also lead to sensory overwhelm. The good news about this is that there is a solution – or rather, a range of solutions.

Our sight impacts our ability to process, interact and communicate with the world around us. Visual input is a key consideration for most of the people who contributed to Considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic people in housing – it was one of the most dominant senses. Visual stimulation can be a source of comfort and joy and can also lead to sensory overwhelm. The good news about this is that there is a solution – or rather, a range of solutions.

Sight | Local Government Association
Challenging sensory stimuliSuggested alternatives
Fluorescent lighting (flickers)Tungsten (halogen, incandescent) or LED.
Dimmable lighting (flickers)Not dimmable.
Direct lighting (uncovered bulbs)Diffuse – using a shade.
Or use lamps as an alternative source.
No natural lightGetting the lighting right where there is no natural light is important. This space should have limited use.
Windows obstructed (eg covered in non-transparent film)Uncover windows where possible – even partial visibility helps.
No covering for windows, or transparent curtainsBlackout blinds or curtains that can be fully controlled, particularly in bedrooms. These can be fitted within the window or press studs or Velcro fastenings could be considered if needed.
Significant light changes between rooms or areas.Consider additional blinds, lighting or windows within doors to reduce the change in lighting levels.
Strong shadows, moving shadows (eg from trees)Additional lighting sources or diffused light can reduce shadows.
Reflective surfaces eg flooring or wallsConsider a matt finish.
Limited visibility between spacesIncreased visibility between spaces can ease transitions – transparent panels in doors.
Bright coloursSwap for neutral, natural and pastel colours.
Bright posters, murals and wall designsLimit this in small spaces and entrances. Involve people in choosing the detail of design if desired.
Patterns on floors, carpets and soft furnishingsPlain materials in neutral colours.

Source: Sight | Local Government Association

🦻 Sound

close up photography of gray stainless steel fan turned on surrounded by dark background

Many autistic people process one thing at a time and can’t ‘tune out’ inputs. Every noise will continue to be heard, will be a distraction and will take ‘bandwidth’.

Sound | Local Government Association

Many neurotypical people can ‘block out’ noise, but some autistic people struggle to do this and hear every sound, including things that might not be audible to others such as outside noises like cars and aeroplanes.

Autistic people may also be able to hear sounds from inside the building – such as voices or noises from other rooms, or water in pipes and electricity in the walls. A decibel meter can be useful to support this work (now available as a phone app for those in need).

Sound | Local Government Association
Challenging sensory stimuliSuggested alternatives
Outside noise – traffic, schools, airplanes (consider different times of day)An important consideration in location as there are limited options to reduce this noise. Double glazing or acoustic glass may help.
Hard floors and walls, adds to noise (eg footsteps) and creates echoSoft furnishings (carpets, curtains, furniture) absorb noise.Acoustic vinyl is often a better option than laminate where carpet isn’t appropriate.
Sound absorbing panels could also be considered.
Curved and angled walls and ceilings – affects how sound moves in the space and can be disorientating for those with proprioceptive issues.Straight walls and ‘flat’ ceilings.Soft furnishings and sound absorbing panels can reduce the impact of this where change is not possible.
High ceilingsWhere these are present soft furnishings and sound absorbing panels can help.
Electrical buzzingCan items be turned off or moved?
Forced air, heating or air conditioning hummingIs it possible to control this? Can it be turned off? Can it be serviced to reduce the noise?
Heating noisesIs it possible to control this? Servicing may reduce the noise volume.
Fan heaters or fan assisted radiatorsSwap for panel radiators or underfloor heating. Large low temperature radiators may be safer than smaller higher temperature alternatives.
Water pipes including from toilets, appliances and pipesAre they noisy in all areas or are there quieter spaces? Is it constant? Can it be controlled or managed?Limit use of spaces where it is particularly noisy.
Washing machine and clothes dryerConsider agreeing timings of use. Some people find this sound comforting and helpful to self- regulate.

Source: Sound | Local Government Association

👃 Smell and Taste

cup of coffee and blooming branch

Certain smells can really help to calm and soothe me. On the contrary other smells can make me feel quite unwell. For some autistic people the sense of smell can be so strong that it feels like you are being force fed.
Carly

Smell | Local Government Association

Smell is pervasive – it is not possible to close our nostrils as we can close our eyes.

As many autistic people do not ‘habituate’, a smell will remain distinct and present, though neurotypical people might only notice a smell when they initially experience it, for example when entering a room.

Smell | Local Government Association
Challenging sensory stimuliSuggested alternatives
Outside smellsThis can be very difficult to control, so may be an important consideration when choosing location.
Paint smellsUse low odour paint. Consider timing of use.
Cleaning products – including air freshener, toilet cistern blocks, bleach, surface wipes, floor cleaner.Use unscented.
Involve the person in choosing the product where possible. Consistency may help.
Many eco products are less smelly.
Laundry powder and conditionersThis is often scented, though some unscented varieties are available. Choice and consistency may help. Involve the person in choosing the product where possible. Limit changes to products used.
Washed clothing often smells stronger wet than when dryWhere will clothing be dried? Is there a separate area? Avoid drying clothes in bedrooms, and where possible also avoid drying clothes in living areas.
Household smells
Consider how smells can be contained if areas are not separated.
Shut doors between rooms to limit smells drifting.
People smellsLimit use of perfumes and aftershave. Consider personal smells including smoke
Dining room / eating locationsMany autistic people prefer to eat alone. Are there choices for where to eat? Could there be?

Source: Smell | Local Government Association

👆 Touch

white and green throw pillows

Soft furnishings and furniture can have a positive impact on the soundscape and on the comfort in the room.

Touch | Local Government Association

Temperature, texture and pressure (from touch as well as from atmospheric pressure) can all add to the sensory load.

Touch | Local Government Association
Challenging sensory stimuliSuggested alternatives
Carpets and rugsChange or remove these if needed. Try swapping for calmer colours and different textures.
Bedding – including low quality materials that can be ‘scratchy’Choice of bedding. Soft, quiet materials. Many people feel more comfortable with 100 per cent cotton and a high thread count.

🧰 Adapting the Environment

Just listen. It’s not rocket science, just listen.

“It’s Not Rocket Science” – NDTi

  1. The sensory environment
    Does the individual have a place to work where they feel comfortable? Are the ambient sounds, smells, and visuals tolerable? Is the lighting suitable? What about uncomfortable tactile stimuli? Has room layout been considered? Can ear defenders, computer screen filters or room dividers be used to create a more comfortable work environment? Do people working with them have information about what might be a problem – e.g. strong perfume – and do they understand why this matters?
  2. The timely environment
    Has appropriate time been allowed for tasks? Allowing time to reflect upon tasks and address them accordingly will maximise success. Are time scales realistic? Have they been discussed? Are there explicit procedures if tasks are finished early or require additional time? Are requests to do things quickly kept to a minimum with the option to opt out of having to respond rapidly?
  3. The explicit environment
    Is everything required made explicit? Are some tasks based upon implicit understanding which draw upon social norms or typical expectations? Is it clear which tasks should be prioritised over others? Avoid being patronising but checking that everything has been made explicit will reduce confusion later. Is there an explicit procedure for asking questions should they arise (e.g. a named person (a mentor) to ask in the first instance)?
  4. The predictable environment
    How predictable is the environment? Is it possible to maximise predictability? Uncertainty can be anxiety provoking and a predictable environment can help in reducing this and enable greater task focus. Can regular meetings be set up? Is it possible that meetings may have to be cancelled in the future? Are
    “It’s Not Rocket Science” Page 124 procedures clear for when expected events (such as meetings) are cancelled, with a rationale for any alterations? Can resources and materials be sent in advance?
  5. The social environment
    Does the workplace have social occasions and is the individual keen / reluctant to participate? Are there essential social occasions? Can group activities be adjusted to enable the staff member / student to take part – e.g. issuing a clear invitation to a specific, time-bound event. Do staff in the workplace recognise that a reluctance to engage socially does not imply dislike or rudeness? Would the person benefit from having a traffic-light system (e.g. green, yellow or red post-it notes) to signal their willingness to interact and / or current stress level?
    By thinking of ‘Workplace Adjustment STEPS’, you can consider the extent to which the environment is Sensory, Timely, Explicit, Predictable, and Social. Supporting the individual is on the next page.

Source: “It’s Not Rocket Science” – NDTi

🌈 Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

💥 Sensory

👁 Sight/visual

Some people who have autism can struggle with visual stimulus that can be offensive. This could be at best distracting causing a lack of focus and concentration. At worse this could cause a person to avoid environments completely. One case example was where a young lady on the spectrum could not speak at a conference because the carpet leading to the stage was too patterned and she could not walk on it.

  • Have you considered if the colours in the environment are low arousal such as cream and pastel shades rather than vibrant Shades?
  • Have you considered if the environment is too cluttered with furniture?
  • “It has been suggested that people with Autism find it helpful if furniture is kept to the sides of a room and the central space is kept clear”(Nguyen, 2006)
  • Does the environment have overly patterned shapes and surfaces that could be visually offensive?
  • Have you also considered any curtains, blinds etc. that could be visually offensive?
  • Have you considered whether any clothing or jewellery could be visually offensive?
  • Have you considered if the environment has fluorescent or harsh lighting?
  • Have you considered the effect of sunlight from windows or skylights, where the light is at different times of the day and reflective surfaces?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

👃 Smell/olfactory

If you have ever walked through a perfume department in a store, then you may have experienced the effect on your senses. It can be offensive if you are hypersensitive to smell and can have significant physical responses such as headache and nausea. It is therefore important to minimize this distress.

  • Have you considered the toxicity/acute smells of paint or wallpaper pastes used to decorate the environment?
  • Have you considered the smells of cleaning materials used? E.g. polish, air fresheners, bleach
  • Have you considered the smells of individuals (including pets) using the environment? (E.g. Deodorants, perfumes and aftershaves)
  • Do ‘offensive’ smells drift around the building from room to room and have you considered how you might isolate them?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

🦻 Hearing/auditory

Many people with autism seem to be hypersensitive to acute or high-pitched noise that they cannot control. This can feel like sharp pain and people either cover their ears with fingers or earphones/defenders. The other alternative is to hide the offensive sound by masking it with ‘white noise’. Sometimes the slightest inconspicuous sound can be irritating and distracting such as a ‘hum’ or a ‘ticking’

  • Have you considered the general noise level in the environment?
  • Have you considered hypersensitive hearing and looked at specific noises that may irritate such as clocks ticking, humming from lights, road noises or building/gardening work in the distance?
  • Is there noise from flooring and can this be deadened if needed?
  • Have you considered noise levels at different times of the day?
  • Have you thought about when people are in the environment at the same and the possible mix of sensory needs?
  • Have you any specific quiet and louder areas that people can choose from?
  • Have you considered the pitch of noises as well as the level?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

👣 Bodyawareness/proprioception

Some people with autism can have problems with perception and body awareness and find navigating, particularly in unfamiliar settings difficult. Some have additional ‘movement’ challenges that they will struggle with.

  • Is the environment free of unnecessary obstructions?
  • Have rooms been made easier to navigate? E.g. using colours to distinguish floors, walls and furniture, as well as from room to room)
  • Have you considered differing heights that individuals may need to navigate such as steps, stairs and kerbs?
  • Have you considered adjustments for those people who have fine motor difficulties? (E.g. locks, cutlery, door handles)

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

👆 Touch/tactile

Some people with autism have sensory differences with regards to touch. This can be complicated with wanting and seeking touch to avoiding it completely. This touch can vary in pressure and to different parts of the body. Whilst some can prefer only light or no touch others will be calmed by firm pressure even being squeezed tightly into clothes or a corner of a room. Getting it wrong and being touched incorrectly can cause great stress and acute reactions.

  • Are there sensory materials available for individuals to explore touch in the environment? E.g. sand, water play, textiles
  • Do you have a variety of materials and enough needed for each individual who seeks sensory stimulation?
  • Are there opportunities for soft play/rough and tumble for individuals to access if appropriate and needed?
  • Is there massage available to individuals, if needed? (Consider how often, by whom)
  • Have you considered using a body map where individuals can indicate areas they like/dislike to be touched?
  • If no body map can you determine where someone likes/dislikes to be touched?
  • Are there small tight spaces where individuals can squeeze into if they wish to calm using firm pressure?
  • Are there indicators to point out where hot surfaces are?
  • Have you considered safety for people who are hypo sensitive to touch and how to manage this?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

👅 Taste/Gustatory

People with autism can be ‘fussy eaters’? This may be unfair as it indicates that it is always a conscious choice. However, if your taste sensations are effected for example you are hypersensitive to flavours or under sensitive i.e. cannot taste any bland food then you are limited. For those who cannot communicate this such as people with a learning disability it may be important to understand this better.

  • Do you have a wide range of foods available of different textures and temperatures?
  • Are there options to intensify the flavour of foods by adding seasoning or spices?
  • Is there clear guidance on what to do when someone is mouthing or eating inedible food?
  • Have you considered whether people prefer any foodstuffs not to touch each other?
  • Have you considered whether people prefer certain coloured foods or acute tastes?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

⚖️ Balance/Vestibular

Certain movements that cause a self-soothing effect can help stress levels. Many children (and adults) with autism will use a trampoline to calm themselves. To restrict movement especially for people who are used to it can itself cause anxiety.

  • Is the environment suitable for people who seek movement for example needing lots of space, soft play areas, swings or a trampoline?
  • Are there opportunities for people to move from indoors to out?
  • Have you considered how restrictions on movement effect individuals?
  • Is the environment suitable for people who are oversensitive to movement for example using support equipment to helpwith balance?
  • Are routines flexible to those who struggle with movement disorders for example enough time given for movement in the day?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

💬 Communication Systems

In all walks of life effective communication is vital. For people on the autism spectrum this is perhaps essential. Clear unambiguous indicators in all forms can prevent stress. Like much of the general population there is a definite preference for sameness, for appropriate language and for an absence of sudden change.

  • Does the environment have clear signs to indicate the use of each room? If appropriate, are there directional signs to each area?
  • If appropriate, are there directional signs to each area?
  • Have you considered to what extent are communication systems supported by the use of symbols, pictures, photos or objects?
  • If rooms do not have one purpose only can you indicate when it is used for different functions to avoid confusion?
  • Are there photographs used to aid recognition of people (Staff/unfamiliar) if needed?
  • Do you plan for changes e.g. to routines, staff leaving and building work?
  • Have you considered the use of ‘literal’ meanings when designing your environment?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

␛ Escape/Leave

This is particularly important when there is an unfriendly environment that is difficult to change. People on the autism spectrum are thought to suffer higher levels of stress than the general population due to the condition. It is important therefore to indicate to someone that they can leave a stressful situation and where they can go that is calmer.

  • Is there a system to know when a person with autism needs to escape/leave from an environment?
  • Is there a space / room to escape to?
  • Is this room /space used solely for this purpose?
  • Have you considered to what extent is this room/space low stimuli and safe?
  • Is there an alternative to the escape room/space (E.g. the garden)

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

💭 Awareness

It is important that everyone in an organisation has some basic knowledge of autism and is up to date with their training needs. To be aware of the barriers to change can also be a catalyst for effective problem solving and solutions.

  • Are you able to make changes to the Core sensory environment? (E.g. are there practical or financial restraints.)
  • Have you considered to what extent is the environment primarily ‘safe’ for people with autism?
  • Are you up to date with Autism Awareness training to support this checklist?
  • Have you considered to what extent are you fully aware of each individuals’ sensory difficulties? (See the sensory profile devised by Bogdashina, 2016)
  • Are you able to make changes to the sensory environment for example are there practical or financial restraints?
  • Have you considered to what extent is the environment ‘safe’ for people with autism?
  • Are you up to date with enhanced Autism training to support this checklist?

Source: Checklist for Autism-Friendly Environments

📞 Anything but the Phone!

Phones are very stressful. ‘Call if you have a problem’ is an inaccessible gauntlet for me and many others. If you work with neurodivergent kids, keep in mind that their parents are likely neurodivergent too. Most of the autistic parents “you encounter will not be diagnosed, and may indeed be oblivious to their own social and communication difficulties. By making your systems and processes more adapted to the needs of autistic mothers, you will be supporting not only undiagnosed mothers (and fathers) but other adults with additional needs.

Considering that autism professionals must know how we autistics struggle with verbal communications, it is troubling how few willingly offer alternatives. My life, and my ability to advocate for my son, has been immeasurably improved through the use of email.

If you do one thing to improve your service, please provide your email address and show willing to communicate in this format. I can think of no reason to withhold email addresses, and am not sure what’s stopping you.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: Could Do Better: To Professionals Working with Autistic Mothers of Autistic Children

When AMASE conducted a survey about the mental health of autistic people around Scotland, we found that many had been excluded by such simple things as practices insisting on telephone contact

Source: Fergus Murray: Why ‘nothing about us without us’ should be an Autism policy principle | CommonSpace

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about autistic people, and phone calls.

Many autistic people are not always able to speak, or may not be able to speak at all.

Unfortunately, not a lot of people know this.  So there can be major difficulties with people misunderstanding what’s happening.

Lots of autistic people can only sometimes use phones.  It’s a major barrier to healthcare, to job success, to getting basic services and basic human rights.  It’s great when companies and organisations know the law, want to work with us, and create different ways to interact.  Text.  Email.  Webchat.  Timed called with a known person.  Anything that works for us as individuals.   

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autistic people and phone calls

Quantitative data indicated that email ranked highly when accessing services, seeking customer support and communicating about research. When communicating with family, friends, in employment and in education, both face-to-face and written modes (email or text message) were preferred. In the qualitative data, four main themes were identified: Not the Phone, Written Communication, Masking versus Autistic Communication and Avoiding Communication. There is a clear message that mode of communication can be either enabling or disabling for autistic people. A reliance on phone calls can create barriers to access, yet the option to adopt written forms of communication can improve accessibility. For known connections, the preference for face-to-face communication is dependent upon how close and accepting the relationship is.

When contacting unknown people or organisations, we found that generally email was preferred, and phone calls were very unpopular. However, for friends, family and people they felt comfortable with, they preferred both face-to-face and written forms of communication (e.g. email and text message).

Implications for practice, research or policy

The findings suggest that services should move away from a reliance on phone calls for communication. They should make sure that access to support is not dependent on the phone, and instead offer written options such as email and live messaging which are more accessible. Future research should investigate the impact of COVID-19 on autistic people’s communication preferences, as video calling has become much more commonly used and potentially combines benefits and challenges of other modes discussed in this article.

The existing evidence suggests that autistic people may prefer written modes of contact. For example, autistic adults perceived success of healthcare interactions is asso- ciated with their willingness to provide written mode options (Nicolaidis et al., 2015), and a survey on Internet use indicated that autistic people typically preferred email over face-to-face interaction (Benford & Standen, 2009). It seems that written communication may diminish some of the social interaction challenges autistic people experi- ence in face-to-face contexts. Benford and Standen (2009) interviewed autistic Internet users, who reported that writ- ten Internet-mediated communication provides more con- trol, thinking time, clarity and fewer sensory issues and streams of information that must be processed and inter- preted. Similarly, Gillespie-Lynch et al. (2014) reported autistic people to perceive computer-mediated communi- cation as beneficial, as it provides more control and increased comprehension in interactions. Consequently, there are reports of autistic adults utilising Internet- mediated modes of communication to foster and develop social connectiveness and relationships (Burke et al., 2010). This previous research has focused on Internet usage, yet there are a range of similar communication modes available. This study aims expand this work and explore the autistic community’s communication mode preferences more broadly, in range of different scenarios.

Source: ‘Anything but the phone!’: Communication mode preferences in the autism community – Philippa L Howard, Felicity Sedgewick, 2021

The sound of the phone ringing can immediately evoke anxiety for some people, especially for autistic people and people with anxiety. If the call hasn’t been agreed in advance, many of us find ourselves simply unable to answer it and let it go to voicemail. Why is this?

Source: Why Phone Calls Can be Incredibly Difficult for Autistic People and People with Anxiety

🚀 It’s Not Rocket Science

Ensure there is quiet space and outdoor space that people can access at any time.

 It’s Not Rocket Science: Considering and Meeting the Sensory Needs of Autistic Children and Young People 

Outside space. Many people find being outside and in natural very calming. Space to move away from other people, internal noises and distractions can be a good way to self-regulate. 

“I think things that are useful for autistic people would be beneficial for everyone. It would have stopped a lot of distress for a lot of people if they can take themselves away and calm down.”
Emily 

A sensory room or de-stress room. Easy access to a quiet space to de-stress can be an enormously helpful tool for people to be able to self-manage. Ideally, this room will be away from areas where there is heavy footfall or other outside noise. Many people find neutral spaces beneficial, with the option of lights and other sensory stimulus. 

“I think you should just be able to walk into the sensory room instead of asking staff and waiting for them to unlock it.”
Jamie 

It’s Not Rocket Science: Considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic children and young people

Just listen. It’s not rocket science, just listen.

Daisy

Making Spaces Safer: Bodymind Affirmation and Access Intimacy

The reality is that marginalized people experience discrimination in public spaces. As they move through their lives and through various spaces, they cannot predict if they will be treated with respect, let alone if they will be safe. When they attend a show or event at your space, they should be able to know what to expect, or at least what you intend to have happen—and not happen—within your walls. So, how can you let them know? You can’t just open the door; you have to put out a welcome mat.

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