What Does It Mean to be Sensory Sensitive?

Demystifying Sensory Sensitivity: A Guide to Understanding and Creating Inclusive Spaces

Have you ever walked into a brightly lit store filled with loud music and felt overwhelmed? Or maybe certain textures on clothing make you itch uncontrollably? If so, you might have experienced a moment of sensory sensitivity.

Being sensory sensitive is a natural variation in how you process sensory information through your eight senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, movement (proprioception), balance (vestibular), and interoception (internal body awareness). Yes, you have more than 5 senses! While everyone has different sensory preferences, people with sensory sensitivities experience sensory input more intensely or differently than others. This can lead to discomfort, anxiety, or even physical reactions in overwhelming environments.

Understanding sensory sensitivity is crucial not only for individuals who experience it but also for creating inclusive spaces for everyone. This blog post will delve into the eight senses, explore how bieng sensory sensitive manifests in each sense, offer practical solutions for navigating daily life and help businesses and organizations support their teams and their customers who experience sensory sensitivity!

Navigating Sensory Experiences: Beyond Preferences for the Sensory Sensitive

While everyone has unique sensory preferences, those who are sensory sensitivite experience sensory information through one or more senses differently. This can manifest as hypersensitivity, where there’s an overload of sensory input, or hyposensitivity, where individuals crave more stimulation. It can also change over time! Research by Robertson and Simmons (2013) suggests a link between sensory sensitivity and autistic traits, but it’s important to remember that sensory sensitivity can occur across various diagnoses. “The Relationship Between Sensory Sensitivity and Autistic Traits in the General Population”, shares that auatistic people will experience hypersensitivity or hypersensitivity 1.

Young boy wearing noise-cancelling ear muffs.

The Eight Senses and Being Sensory Sensitive

Sight: Imagine a bustling grocery store with bright fluorescent lights and colorful displays. For someone hypersensitive to visual stimuli, this environment might trigger dizziness, nausea, or headaches. Conversely, someone with hyposensitivity might seek out visually stimulating environments.

Hearing: Background music, chatter, and traffic noise can be overwhelming for someone with auditory sensitivities. Certain sounds, like fingernails on a chalkboard, might be particularly bothersome. In contrast, someone with hyposensitivity might crave loud noises or struggle to focus in quiet environments.

Touch: Clothing tags, seams, or specific fabrics can be irritating for those with tactile sensitivities. On the other hand, someone with hyposensitivity might crave constant touch or pressure.

Smell: Perfumes, cleaning products, or even strong food smells can be overwhelming for people with olfactory sensitivities. Sensory-friendly environments often adopt a scent-free approach to minimize discomfort.

Taste: Spicy foods, strong flavors, or even certain textures can be unpleasant for individuals with taste sensitivities. They might have a limited diet or avoid certain foods altogether.

Movement: People with proprioceptive sensitivities might struggle with activities that require a lot of coordination or movement planning. In contrast, someone with hyposensitivity to movement, might seek out movement-based activities.

Balance: Motion sickness, a fear of heights, or difficulty walking on uneven surfaces can be signs of vestibular sensitivity. Sensory-friendly environments often prioritize flat, stable surfaces to minimize discomfort.

Interoception: Individuals with interoceptive sensitivities might have difficulty recognizing internal body cues like hunger, thirst, or the need to use the toilet.

Sensory Overload: When Input Becomes Too Much

Sensory sensitivity refers to a heightened or altered response to sensory information through one or more senses. It’s a baseline experience, like having a dimmer switch on your senses. Sensory overload, on the other hand, happens when someone with sensory sensitivities is exposed to too much stimulation, exceeding their ability to cope. It’s a temporary state, like the dimmer switch being pushed to overload, causing discomfort and potentially leading to meltdowns or other negative reactions.

Sensory overload occurs when a person is exposed to more sensory stimuli than they can comfortably process. This can lead to a range of physical and emotional responses, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Meltdowns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

Sensory overload can be triggered by a combination of factors, such as:

  • Crowded environments
  • Loud noises
  • Bright lights
  • Strong smells
  • Uncomfortable clothing textures

Understanding Sensory Sensitivity Across the Lifespan and Diagnoses

Sensory sensitivity can be experienced by people of all ages and abilities. It can be a temporary or permanent experience, and may co-occur with various diagnoses, or simple differences, including (but not limited to):

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-concussion syndrome
  • Hearing loss
  • Dementia
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Long COVID
  • Low vision
  • Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD)
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • And, many, may more….

It’s important to note that sensory sensitivity is not a diagnosis itself, but rather a sensory experience that can be present in various conditions.

Creating Sensory-Friendly Spaces for Everyone

The good news is that there are many ways to create sensory-friendly environments that are inclusive and comfortable for everyone, in particular people who are sensory sensitive. Here are some practical tips:

  • Visual: Dim very bright or flashing lights, use natural light whenever possible, and limit clutter.
  • Auditory: Reduce background noise, offer designated quiet spaces, and provide noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs.
  • Touch: Offer fidget toys and sensory chewable necklaces, and provide a variety of seating options with different textures.
  • Smell: Adopt a scent-free policy and avoid using air fresheners or strong-smelling cleaning products.
  • Taste: Offer a variety of food options with different textures and flavors, and provide clear labeling for ingredients.
  • Movement: Provide ample space for movement, offer designated areas for relaxation, and consider incorporating movement breaks into activities.
  • Balance: Prioritize flat, stable surfaces, and avoid activities that require a lot of balance.

Beyond the Basics: Uncover a World of Sensory-Friendly Solutions at Home, School and Work

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  1. Robertson, A. E., & Simmons, D. R. (2012). The Relationship Between Sensory Sensitivity and Autistic Traits in the General Population. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(4), 775–784. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1608-7
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