Demystifying Sensory Sensitivity and Overload for Business

Empowering Customers and Teams by Creating Sensory-Friendly Spaces

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sensory experience in a space? Or walked into a room buzzing with conversation and fluorescent lights, felt a sudden wave of fatigue, and just needed to escape? That might be sensory overload. Sensory sensitivities and overload are more common than you might think, and they can impact anyone, not just those with neurodiverse conditions. In this post, we’ll explore what these experiences mean for your customers and employees, and offer tips on creating sensory-friendly spaces that benefit everyone. Through real-life scenarios, we’ll unveil how sensitivity and overload feel, and how sensory-friendly spaces can foster a more inclusive and productive experience.

dark corridor with bright lights

Work Events

Imagine this: Alex, a young professional, is excited to attend an industry conference. But upon entering the bustling venue, they’re met with a cacophony of sounds – loud music, overlapping conversations, and clinking silverware. The bright overhead lights and flickering screens further intensify the assault on their senses. Disoriented and overwhelmed, Alex finds it difficult to focus on the presentations, let down by what promised to be a valuable learning experience, they leave early with a migraine, missing out on much of the event.

Travel

Now picture this: The Kato family’s trip to the renowned wax museum was supposed to be a highlight of their vacation. However, ten minutes after entering the dimly lit hall filled with life-sized figures, 7-year-old Kenji started to become overwhelmed. Kenji is autistic, and the combination of the flickering strobe lights used for dramatic effect, the close proximity of the realistic wax figures, and the cacophony of recorded voices and sound effects sent his senses into overload. Tears welled up in his eyes, and his usual chatter subsided into a frustrated silence. Mom and Dad exchanged a worried glance, their excitement for the museum visit quickly replaced with concern for Kenji’s well-being and a plan to head back to the hotel instead of carrying on with their day trip.

Community

Finally, consider William, ever the social butterfly, joined his family at their favorite Italian restaurant. Anticipation lit his eyes, but dimmed quickly as the familiar clatter of plates and happy chatter morphed into a frustrating symphony of noise. His hearing aids fought a losing battle against the cacophony. He strained to catch his daughter’s story, a smile struggling to form on his lips. Sarah, noticing his struggle, her heart ached. They tried a quieter corner, Sarah spoke slower, but the effort felt like pushing back the tide. The joyful noise, once a comforting backdrop, now excluded William. The night, a bittersweet reminder of the isolating effects of hearing loss, ended with a shared silence heavier than any words.

Beyond the Obvious: How Any Environment Can Be a Barrier

Alex, Kenji, and William’s stories aren’t uncommon. Many people experience sensory sensitivity or overload, which can significantly impact their ability to participate in everyday activities at home, school, work, in their communities and when they travel. These sensitivities can be temporary or permanent, and can be caused by a variety of conditions, including neurodiversity (like autism and ADHD), PTSD, post-concussion syndrome, hearing loss, dementia, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, long-covid, low vision, and sensory processing disorders. The reality is, any environment has the potential to become a barrier for someone with sensory sensitivities or overload. The business need for creating sensory-friendly spaces applies everywhere.

Imagine a bustling, stocked grocery store. The bright overhead lights might be overwhelming for someone with visual sensitivities. The cacophony of announcements, overflowing carts, and background music can create a sensory overload for someone with autism. Even a seemingly innocuous environment like a park could be a challenge for someone with hearing loss struggling to follow conversations amidst chirping birds and rustling leaves.

The key takeaway is that sensory sensitivities and sensory overload exist on a spectrum, and what might be a stimulating environment for one person can be overwhelming for another. As a result, by prioritizing sensory-friendly practices, businesses can transform these potential barriers into opportunities for inclusion.

cluttered grocery store

Inclusion Through Sensory Awareness

In today’s competitive landscape, businesses prioritizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are leading the way by creating welcoming and accessible environments for everyone. This commitment needs to extend beyond physical accessibility to encompass sensory needs. Consider this: Being human encompasses a vast spectrum of abilities. Temporary or permanent disability is a reality for nearly everyone at some point in life. According to the World Health Organization: a staggering 1.3 billion people, or 16% of the global population, currently experience significant disability. This number is steadily rising due to an aging population and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases.

Why Sensory Needs are Key to DEI:

  • Inclusion Means Everyone: DEI goes beyond race, gender, and sexual orientation. In addition, it encompasses a broad range of disabilities, neurodiversities and sensory processing differences. Furthermore, by making your space sensory-friendly, you ensure a wider range of people feel comfortable and welcome. Imagine an autistic person who struggles with loud noises. For example, a sensory-friendly environment with quieter areas and noise-canceling headphones allows them to participate and enjoy the experience, fostering a sense of belonging.
  • Accessibility for All: Physical accessibility is a well-established aspect of inclusion, but sensory accessibility is equally important. For instance, someone with hearing loss might struggle in a restaurant with loud music and background noise. Similarly, bright fluorescent lights can be overwhelming for someone with visual sensitivities. Thus, creating a sensory-friendly environment removes these barriers and allows everyone to access your space and services
  • Leveling the Playing Field: Sensory sensitivities can create significant challenges in everyday activities. Importantly, by implementing sensory-friendly practices, you create a more equitable experience for everyone. For example, an employee with ADHD might find it difficult to concentrate in a noisy open-office environment. However, offering designated quiet areas or noise-canceling headphones allows them to work productively and reach their full potential.

Ultimately, sensory-friendly practices are an investment in a more inclusive and welcoming environment. This benefits both your customers and employees, leading to greater customer satisfaction, loyalty, and employee well-being. Moreover, in a competitive market, prioritizing sensory-friendly practices demonstrates your commitment to DEI and sets your business apart.

By understanding sensory sensitivity and overload, you can unlock a world of possibilities for a more inclusive and thriving organization.

What is Sensory Sensitivity and Overload?

Our eight senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, interoception (internal body sense), proprioception (body position and movement), and vestibular (balance) – constantly bombard us with information. For most people, the brain effectively filters and processes this sensory input. However, individuals with sensory sensitivities experience heightened or diminished responses to these stimuli, leading to challenges in certain environments.

Imagine a volume knob on a stereo. For someone with sensory sensitivity, that knob might be turned up too high, making even everyday sounds feel uncomfortably loud. Conversely, someone with sensory processing disorder might have a low volume knob, making them crave stronger sensory input.

Sensory overload occurs when the brain receives an overwhelming amount of sensory information, exceeding its processing capacity. This can trigger a fight-or-flight response, leading to anxiety, meltdowns, or withdrawal.

While sensory sensitivity and overload are often associated with autism, it’s important to remember that these experiences can impact people across the lifespan and from various backgrounds.

overwhelmed woman holding head with eyes closes

The Impact of Sensory Sensitivity and Overload on Businesses

You, your team and your customers experience the world through our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Are you suprprised to learn that there are more than five? There are actually eight primary sensory systems, and for some individuals, these can be extra sensitive or prone to overload. And remember, this also includes the vestibular system (balance), proprioception (body awareness), and interoception (internal signals like hunger). Creating a sensory-friendly environment goes beyond just bright lights or loud noises. By considering all eight senses, you can ensure a more welcoming and inclusive experience for a wider range of customers and employees.

Now, think about your typical customer or employee. Consider how the sensory environment in your space might be impacting their experience. For example:

  • A busy restaurant with loud music and flickering lights might deter customers with sensory sensitivities, leading to lost revenue.
  • An overly bright and noisy office can create distractions, hindering employee productivity and well-being.

By neglecting sensory considerations, businesses risk alienating a significant portion of their potential customer and employee base. Conversely, embracing sensory-friendly practices demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity, fostering loyalty and positive brand perception.

Creating Sensory-Friendly Spaces: Actionable Steps

Creating a sensory-friendly environment doesn’t require a complete overhaul. Here are some practical steps you can take to make a big difference:

  • Lighting: Offer adjustable lighting options, allowing individuals to control the brightness. Consider providing areas with natural light for those who find fluorescent lights overwhelming.
  • Sound: Reduce background noise by installing soundproofing materials or playing calming music at low volumes.
  • Scent: Avoid using strong air fresheners or scented candles. Designate specific areas for those who may be sensitive to perfumes or other fragrances.
  • Seating: Provide a variety of seating options, including high-backed chairs and quiet corners for those seeking a sense of privacy.
  • Visual Cues: Minimize clutter and opt for calming color palettes. Use clear signage with easy-to-read fonts.

Remember, small changes can have a significant impact. By implementing these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to creating a more welcoming and inclusive space for everyone.

Looking for More Support in Creating Sensory-Friendly Spaces?

Sensory Friendly Solutions offers a comprehensive suite of services to help businesses creating sensory-friendly spaces and experiences. We train, certify, consult and recognize sensory-friendly products. Watch this short video about our training memberships. For one low cost, you get access to all the courses you need to creating sensory-friendly experiences.

Make Your Event and Location Inclusive with Training

Boost Employee Productivity & Customer Satisfaction: Explore Our Top Sensory-Friendly Training Blogs

Wondering about sensory overload for yourself personally? Read our blog: How to Manage Sensory Overload in Adults.

Still curious about what else it takes to be sensory-friendly? Dive deeper with our latest blog post content:

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