Beeping sounds from equipment with low batteries. Coworkers on their phones. Flickering lights. Clashing colors. Smells of burnt food mixed with cleaning products. All of these are examples of sensory input that can become overwhelming and overstimulating. When sensory input exceeds our ability to process and cope with it, our mental and physical health suffers. In the workplace, performance suffers as well. In some cases, the lack of sensory safety can exclude highly qualified people from working.
Unfortunately, attention to sensory safety in the workplace is often lacking or is limited only to extreme sensory environments (e.g., sound protection in heavy manufacturing). In office settings, organizations occasionally advise limiting the use of perfumes or installing dimmable lights, and allowing headphones as needed. Traditionally, however, most decision-makers paid little attention to sensory considerations. One example is the push for open offices – a nightmare for people with sensory sensitivities often associated with neurodivergence. As another example, retail spaces and even doctor’s and dental offices often pipe music non-stop, creating environments that result in sensory assault and in some cases, are intolerable to sensory-sensitive customers and exclusionary to neurodivergent jobs-seekers.
Creating an accessible workplace requires consideration of sensory safety for all employees, particularly those who are sensory sensitive. This is an essential of inclusion for those neurodivergent employees who might experience intense sensory overwhelm, sensory trauma, and ultimately be unable to work if environments are noisy, odorous, or filled with flashing lights. However, creating spaces that support well-being by removing auditory, visual, and other stimuli that might be particularly distressing or even painful for neurodivergent employees helps improve work environments for everyone.
This article will focus, in particular, on auditory sensitives and auditory safety, with brief notes on other senses and sources of overwhelm.
What is Sensory Trauma
Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses are overburdened by too much input. The body reacts to sensory overload as it would to a survival threat. This can trigger feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, physical discomfort, and a fight-flight-freeze reaction. A variety of factors, including loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, and busy environments, can cause sensory overload. In extreme cases or with repeated uncontrollable exposure to situations that cause sensory overload, individuals may develop sensory trauma.
Sensory trauma refers to the negative impact that certain sensory stimuli (sounds, smells, lights, etc.) can have on an individual. Extreme sensory events (e.g., explosions) can be traumatizing for anyone. However, people with sensory hypersensitivity, which is one of the defining features of autism and is also reported by people with Tourette’s, ADHD and other neurodifferences, may experience ordinary events with much higher intensity. For example, the sound of a microwave may be perceived as intensely as a leaf blower.
The heightened intensity of perception and the resulting sensory overload can make everyday experiences such as navigating a city or working in an office not just unpleasant but, in extreme cases, debilitatingly painful and traumatic. Over time, traumatic events can cumulate and exceed an individual’s coping capacity, resulting in burnout. In addition, trauma-related sensory vigilance can make sensitivities even more intense. Employee well-being, performance, and retention will suffer if workplaces fail to provide sensory safety.
Sensory intensity associated with neurodivergence can impact all senses – taste, touch, smell – but sound sensitivities are particularly common. These sensitivities are sometimes described as Decreased Sound Tolerance Disorders (DSTD). The most frequently researched forms of DSTD are hyperacusis and misophonia.
Hyperacusis. Many people are particularly bothered by the loudness of sounds, even if others do not perceive the volume as loud – a phenomenon described as hyperacusis, reduced tolerance of loud sounds. In hyperacusis, the perception of excessive loudness depends only on the physical characteristics of the sound (i.e., its spectrum and intensity), not the sound’s meaning, specific source (e.g., a person), and context. Extensive research indicates a very high prevalence of hyperacusis in autistic individuals across the lifespan, with estimates ranging from 37% and up to 69%. Research on hyperacusis and ADHD is relatively limited, but preliminary studies indicate that children with ADHD experience it at higher rates than neurotypical children.
Misophonia. Separately or in co-occurrence with hyperacusis, some individuals may have a strong negative reaction to specific sounds (typically, chewing, breathing, and other bodily noises, along with foot tapping, keyboard typing, footsteps, etc). Misophonia (“hatred of sound”) denotes a strong dislike of sounds accompanied by uncommonly intense, distressing emotional reactions, typically disgust and anger, but also fear or panic. This strong emotion is often accompanied by an autonomic response, such as an increased heart rate. These strong emotional and physiological reactions and the associated avoidance of the sound can cause significant distress and interfere with task performance and interactions at work. Misophonia is associated with autism, ADHD, and Tourettes’, although it is considered to be most strongly related to the obsessive-compulsive spectrum of conditions.
Visual and the sensory sensitives. In addition to auditory sensitives, neurodivergent individuals might have higher levels of sensitivity to lights. Especially problematic is fluorescent lighting, which can be problematic both due to its visually bothersome purplish hue and flickering, and the accompanying buzzing sounds.
There is no single recipe for addressing visual sensitivities because each individual’s sensitivity pattern is different. Some individuals might react to a specific part of the light spectrum (e.g., yellow or blue). Others respond to the light intensity – and both high and low levels of lighting can be problematic. Some autistic individuals strongly prefer low levels of lighting. However, others, especially those with co-occurring depression or a seasonal affective disorder, need bright daylight and may become ill without it. Moreover, visual overstimulation can also be caused by busy patterns or specific colors (usually, bright and/or dark colors). Hence, one-size-fits-all lighting solutions do not work. The approach to reducing visual overstimulation needs to be individualized.
Sensitivity to vibration, smells, touch, texture, or specific fabrics can all come into play in specific work environments. It is generally a good practice to avoid strong odors and the use of synthetic fabrics in uniforms, or allow individuals a choice of fabrics even if the cut and color are standardized.
Trauma, vigilance, and the need for sensory safety.
Repeated exposure to uncontrollable and unpredictable adverse sensory stimuli resulting in sensory trauma is also likely to lead to vigilance – a state of heightened attention, monitoring, and anticipation of threats. However, vigilance is in itself a source of stress and fatigue, and may exacerbate traumatic experiences.
Autistic individuals, in particular, may be especially at risk of sensory trauma due to their heightened reaction to the stimuli as well as to the anxiety-producing unpredictability of the environment. For them, the potential for sensory trauma is always present. The constant threat of sensory overload results in a state of vigilance. While this vigilance is a natural self-preservation reaction, the associated persistent physiological activation is taxing on one’s body, exhausting, and can have a significant detrimental impact on well-being.
The proponents of the medical model of autism suggest that exposure therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used to reduce sensitivity. However, autistic researchers indicate that such treatment can be dangerous, harmful, and akin to torture. From the perspective of the social model, it is important to ensure sensory safety and sensory inclusion in the workplace. Vigilance can be reduced when individuals experience safety.