Sensory Friendly Space Checklist
My name is Lyric, and I am a late discovered NeuroDivergent adult, diagnosed Autistic at 29 and ADHD at 33. Because of intense sensory processing difficulties, many public spaces in the modern world are inaccessible to me, with prolonged exposure causing pain, overload, and physical sickness.
Ironically, many of the things that make me ill and other people with sensory sensitivities are sometimes touted as modern marvels. Problems created by society, and technology, many of which have simple and affordable alternatives.
What ARE Sensory Processing Differences?
Humans use our senses to interpret the world. How our brains decode and process, sensory information can significantly impact how we interact with the people we engage with and the environments we enter.
Autistic & NeuroDivergent People often have sensory processing differences, sometimes referred to as a sensory processing disorder, if our differences cause problems in our ability to live day today in the world.
Every human being, NeuroDivergent or NeuroTypical, has a unique sensory profile that can vary significantly from person to person, even from Autistic person to Autistic person.
Think of sensory processing and people’s sensory profiles as a DJ’s controller board, with all the sliders that can go up or down.
There is an average range in the middle (where non-autistics or NeuroTypicals sit). NeuroDivergent people tend to slide up or down from all of those averages.
These sliders can be adjusted for each of the senses – sight, smell, touch, vision, taste, balance, how well you feel your body in space.
The NeuroDivergent sensory profile ranges often tend to be in the extreme ends of things, being overly or under-sensitive in various areas of a person’s sensory profile compared to NeuroTypical People.
Sensory Aversions & Sensory Seeking:
People who experience sensory processing differences may engage in sensory seeking (seeking out sensory input such as movement, sounds, tastes, smells, or other experiences they find pleasurable or soothing). Sensory seeking can help someone with sensory distress block out unpleasant sensory sensations and recenter themselves on sensory experiences by grounding and focusing on enjoyable sensory stimuli.
Suppose someone who has sensory processing differences comes into contact with something uncomfortable, painful, or overwhelming to their senses. In that case, they may withdraw or avoid environments or situations that cause discomfort.
It is crucial to provide opportunities for sensory seeking and ways people can remove themselves if they need to do so. The need to withdraw from painful and overwhelming sensory stimuli and the need to ground and soothe oneself through sensory seeking are important and must be supported. Many of us regulate our senses in this way, keeping things in a delicate balance.
Evaluating the Spaces You Enter & Creating Spaces that are More Inclusive
While some NeuroDivergent people can be susceptible to environmental sensory stimuli, some NeuroDivergent people may also not be sensitive to sensory experiences at all. It can vary significantly from person to person; there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
There are, however, things you can do to make spaces more inclusive by design if you take each of the senses within the human sensory spectrum into consideration.
As someone with intense sensory issues, whenever I plan to engage with others or venture out into the world, the sensory environment of a space is always one of my first considerations.
I have to weigh the risks, pros, cons and decide what sensory gear I think I will need for the environments I will enter as I’m leaving for the day. As I head out into the world, I’m also planning for the exhaustion, crash, and recovery that will follow time spent in spaces that are often hostile to my senses. I have to think about these things because ignoring them is a risk to my health and safety.
You who have the privilege of not worrying about sensory overload, I ask you to, please, think carefully about the spaces around you. Think about the areas you work in and the stores and public spaces you enter.
How can you adapt the sensory environments so that people with different sensory profiles can all engage equitably? What obstacles can you remove or adjust to make your spaces more inclusive? What about accommodating people whose sensory needs are varied from one another?
Accommodating the 7 Senses
People with visual sensitivities may experience painful symptoms from visual overloads, such as headaches, migraines, vertigo, nausea, disorientation, and even seizures.
Lighting isn’t the only problem for those with visual processing differences. Some people with visual sensitivities may find bold and bright patterns or colors overwhelming or painful to look at.
Is your space filled with artificial bright lights, strobing or flickering lamps, fixtures, or light glares from external windows with shades that cannot be shut? Are your walls or floors covered in bold patterns and bright colors?
Whenever possible, it is helpful to provide multiple lighting options for your spaces. Create spaces that have bright lighting, as well as less bright spaces. Avoid designing spaces with stripes and other bold patterns or colors, and stick to more neutral pallets and simple designs.
While light glares and bright artificial lighting can be painful and overwhelming for visual sensitivities, some people need bright lights to see appropriately. There are situations in which bright lighting may be required.
In spaces that need to have bright lights overhead, depending on ceiling height, you may be able to create indoor shade structures that allow people to move freely between well-lit and more dimly lit spaces.
In meeting rooms, you can often do simple things such as turning the lights in one half of the meeting room down or off and allowing people to sit in whichever lighting suites them best.
If your space does not have enough lighting when the overhead lights have been switched off, you may want to bring in lamps with lower wattages or bulbs with varied color options and dimmers so that the lighting can be changed and customized.
- Create spaces that have bright lighting, as well as less bright spaces.
- Create indoor shade structures, or remove lights above work and other areas for people to create high and low light spaces to moderate their individual needs.
- Provide both warm & cool lighting options or custom light options where people can pick the color and tone of lighting that suits their individual needs in that particular moment.
- Add dimmer switches to bright lights so that their intensity can be turned down, depending on the needs of the individuals in the room.
- Allow the use of sunglasses, shades, and hats, even indoors if needed.
- Avoid designing spaces with stripes and other bold patterns or colors, and stick to more neutral pallets and simple designs.
People who experience auditory (hearing) sensitivities may find sudden or loud noises physically painful and overwhelming. Those who are more sensitive to sounds may be bothered by or unable to tune out sounds that many people can easily ignore or may not notice.
Is everyone in your space expected to work together in one, large, open space? Are there places people can go if they need a quiet moment to think? Are there spaces to complete focused work without the worry of being interrupted?
Are you hosting happy hours, meetings, or educational seminars in busy or loud spaces, such as restaurants, kitchens, or bars? People with an auditory processing disorder may struggle to process words accurately and engage equitably in noisy or busy environments.
Just like with visual sensitivity, sensory overload from auditory sensitivities can lead to overloads, such as headaches, migraines, vertigo, and disorientation.
Be mindful of sounds that are created in your space. Do your rooms echo? Our air conditioning units, fans, lights, or other pieces of machinery humming?
These mechanical noises may seem quiet to someone who is not sensory sensitive. Still, those who struggle with auditory overwhelm hear things that others often miss and may find the constant mechanical input draining.
- Use sound and echo dampening panels in busy or loud spaces—adding fabric surfaces (such as chairs, rugs, drapes, and other furniture can also help absorb sounds).
- Address droning and draining sounds that can come from machinery. Avoid placing work, communal, and sensory-friendly areas near humming electric equipment or other commonly loud spaces whenever possible.
- If you have music playing over a PA system, the easy option would be to stop this and stop forcing everyone to listen to the same music.
- Whenever possible, allow, encourage, and provide access to tools that let people have more control over their auditory input, such as allowing the use of personal music with earbuds or noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, or ear defenders.
- Provide dedicated quiet spaces and zones where people can escape sounds if they become overwhelming.
- In-office spaces provide spaces where people who need to work quietly can separate from people working while talking, collaborating, and making more noise.
- It may be helpful to utilize small rooms that people can book if they need a moment of solitary quiet.
- These small rooms can also be helpful if someone is planning to do a noisy activity and may disturb others, such as a loud phone call.
People who are more sensitive to smells may need to avoid certain scents.
Like the other senses, overwhelm and physical discomfort or sickness such as nausea or vomiting may occur with scent overload. Scent overloads can cause disorientation, headaches, vertigo, or a person suddenly running away from smells in panic.
Most frequently, smells creep in from kitchens, break rooms, and bathrooms. Bad smells can also come from trash cans and people eating in workspaces. Sometimes fragrances from perfumes and colognes and air fresheners can be a significant annoyance for people who are sensitive to smells.
Sniff around your space. Do you smell anything? Smell is a highly subjective sense. One person’s favorite smell maybe someone else’s sensory overload or PTSD trigger.
- Empty any trash cans that contain food at least once a day and make sure trash can lids close and seal, locking in bad smells (especially if the can holds discarded food or human waste products).
- Ask employees not to wear strong smells such as perfumes and colognes to work.
- Avoid the use of air fresheners, sprays, candles, and other chemicals.
- Choose unscented products whenever possible.
- Ensure high smell areas (bathrooms, breakrooms, kitchens) have doors that close and good ventilation.
- Keep work areas, common areas, education, and meeting spaces away from high smell areas whenever possible.
Tactile sensitivities can mean people may be sensitive to certain fabrics and clothing. Some people, who are touch-sensitive, may dislike (or possibly feel pain) when others touch them.
- Don’t touch people without their consent, especially if they are not looking at you or expecting to be touched.
- When planning activities, consider that some physical touch from others may be unwelcome and unpleasant. If leading activities that may include physical touch, be sure to provide options that do not require physical contact.
- If your organization has a dress code, consider ways to allow for more flexibility to allow those with tactile sensitivity to avoid fabrics and clothing that can feel suffocation, itchy, or painful.
- Be mindful of the fabrics you use to furnish your spaces. Use soft and inviting materials, avoiding anything itchy or harsh.
People with taste (or texture) sensitivities may have a limited food pallet.
Some of us may be taste seekers. Those who are hypersensitive (less/underly sensitive) taste my crave and seek out bold foods and flavors, struggling to eat bland foods. Other people with sensory processing differences may be taste avoiders if they are hypersensitive (more sensitive) to how taste is processed in the brain. Taste avoiders may only eat very bland foods, avoiding heavily seasoned or spicy foods.
Autistic people are also more likely to experience co-occurrent food sensitives and food allergies. Because of this, many of us will stick to foods that we know are” “safe food” that won’t cause overwhelm or digestive distress.
- When food is involved, it can be beneficial to provide the menu to all guests in advance, allowing for multiple meal choices to accommodate people with varied pallets.
- Always ask about dietary restrictions and food allergies, and accommodate those dietary needs.
- If possible, allow people to bring their own food and snacks to your space.
Proprioception (the ability to feel where your body/limbs are in space) & Vestibular (the sense that controls movement and balance)
While sensory seekers in these two senses may appear to be always in motion, people who are hypersensitive to these senses can be prone to motion sickness.
People who struggle with proprioception may be clumsy or experience difficulty with fine motor control.
- When planning events or managing people, incorporate and encourage movement breaks, especially if people sit for extended periods.
- Provide ways for sensory seekers to get the movement they need. Are there places people can go for walks, run, exercise, jump, climb, and engage the senses of balance and movement?
- Offer alternative seating options such as rocking or wobble chairs, beanbags, ball chairs, floor chairs, standing and exercise desks.
- Provide sensory items such as fidget and stim tools.
Sensory Rooms & Sensory Spaces
Even in ideal situations and environments, those of us who experience sensory differences may need to remove ourselves from overstimulating environments from time to time to recharge ourselves and prevent overload.
The need to recuperate means that it is crucial for public, work, and educational spaces to have designated areas where people can take a break and recharge as necessary.
Sensory spaces should be free of bright lighting or light glares, quiet, and should include comfortable sensory-friendly seating options. Include sensory aides, such as stim and fidget tools, headphones, and soothing music. Art supplies, crayons, markers, and drawing paper can also be great ways to ground oneself.
You can create sensory areas that groups can use and private sensory rooms or spaces if people need to retreat away from others fully. Ideally, both options would be available whenever possible.
Meeting Each Person & Their Individual Human Needs
Although we can try to make our spaces as inclusive as possible, every single human being has a unique sensory profile that can vary significantly from person to person. One person’s idea of sensory bliss and perfection may be the next person’s sensory nightmare.
There is no one size fits all answer. That’s why you have to ASK:
- Is this lighting all right for you?
- Does that smell bother you?
- Are you able to concentrate with the current amount of background noise?
- Are you physically comfortable?
- Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?
- Is there anything you need?