Are you familiar with the term “sensory-friendly”. Oftentimes, this phrase is used to describe an experience or product. Did you know there are also sensory-friendly environments? That means there are places and spaces that are sensory-friendly, too. There are many aspects of an environment that can create a comfortable space for people. Furthermore, understanding how to create a sensory-friendly environment is important for families, teachers, healthcare workers and business owners, alike. This blog post will describe what a sensory-friendly environment is in more detail. Additionally, you will learn about easy and effective ways to change your environment to make it more accessible and inclusive.
What is a sensory-friendly environment?
So, what is a sensory-friendly environment? Simply put, a sensory-friendly environment is a space that has been changed to be more calming for the senses. This includes your basic senses, what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Moreover, it also includes your sense of movement, balance and internal bodily sense. You have eight senses, not five.
Furthermore, there are many different ways to create a sensory-friendly environment. It is important to note, there is no “perfect” way to create a sensory-friendly environment. Everyone has different sensory preferences. Ultimately, it depends on the physical characteristics of the space and its purpose. Therefore, it is most important to consider the different senses and how your environment may positively or negatively influence a person’s sensory experience.
Who benefits from sensory-friendly environments?
Oftentimes, sensory-friendly environments are designed for individuals with hypersensitivities. Hypersensitivities occur when people are easily sensitive and irritated by certain sensations. For example, someone with hypersensitivity may experience a high-stress response and discomfort if they are in loud environments. There are many different reasons that people may experience hypersensitivities. Some common diagnoses that may cause people to experience heightened sensitivities including autism, anxiety, concussion or PTSD.
However, it is important to note that sensory-friendly environments benefit everyone. For example, you may also find it irritating to shop in a store playing background music. Someone else might be bothered by scents or smells in a restaurant. Therefore, creating a sensory-friendly environment increases accessibility and inclusion. In fact, research, “Connections Between Sensory Sensitivities in Autism; the Importance of Sensory Friendly Environments for Accessibility and Increased Quality of Life for the Neurodivergent Autistic Minority” by Heidi Morgan (2019) has found that sensory-friendly environments benefit the accessibility of spaces for people with sensory processing disorders and mental illnesses, too 1.
What makes up a sensory-friendly environment?
There are different ways to create a sensory-friendly environment. Below are some common, low-cost and effective ways to make a more sensory-friendly environment for everyone.
A source of irritation and discomfort for many people with sensitivities are bright lights. You may not realize that something as simple as dimming the lights can make a space significantly more comfortable. Make sure there is enough light to be safe. But reduce bright lights.
However, not all spaces are able to change the lighting or it may not be safe to do so. Additionally, individuals with impaired vision may prefer to be in spaces that are well-lit. Another solution is to provide sunglasses.
Another strategy to create a sensory-friendly environment is to reduce noise. Many stores will have background music playing or bar code loud scanners. Although this may not seem to be overly disruptive, it can cause feelings of sensory overload for others. A simple solution to this is to reduce as much noise as possible. Turn off background music. Turn off bar code scanner sounds.
If you find it difficult to control the noise in your environment, you can also provide noise-cancelling headphones. They reduce surrounding noise. Furthermore, they are a great solution in a noisy outdoor environment.
Another important factor to consider when creating a sensory-friendly environment is to create a quiet zone. A quiet zone is simply an area that is dedicated to silence (or much reduced noise) and comfort. Within the quiet zone, you can also provide comfortable seating, sensory-friendly toys, fidgets or weighted lap pads. Quiet zones are appreciated by children, adults and seniors when they are experience sensory overload or distress.
Something that you may have not thought about when creating a sensory-friendly space is to offer plenty of toilets. Did you know that having the urge to use the toilet without being able to do so can lead to sensory overload? Therefore, it is important that you have a sufficient number of toilets available needed to accommodate everyone using your space.
Additionally, it is equally important to have accessible and gender-neutral toilets. Make people feel comfortable. Ensure accessibility. Include more people.
Additionally, it is important to offer accessible seating in your space. This is especially important for individuals with mobility impairments or who use a cane, or walker. Also, this is critical for older adults and seniors. By offering seating around your space, this provides people with a safe and comfortable area to sit and rest.
Scents and smells
Another essential aspect of a sensory-friendly environment is to eliminate scents or smells. Both good and bad scents. Many places have various perfumes, candles or essential oils diffusing into the air. Although this may smell pleasant for some people, other people find it disturbing.
Additionally, many people believe that essential oils offer a calming effect for everyone. However, the smells of these natural scents may still be bothersome for people. Simply eliminate this issue by creating a scent-free environment or scent-free zones.
Lastly, it is important to try to reduce clutter in your environment to make it more sensory-friendly. Clutter is distracting and stimulating. For example, having too much and confusing signage causes people to feel overwhelmed. Keep it simple! Keep it organized!
There are many benefits to making your environment sensory-friendly. Are you interested in learning more about sensory-friendly topics? Check out:
- How to create a sensory-friendly event
- Attract more customers, become sensory-friendly
- Autism hour vs. sensory-friendly shopping
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- Morgan, H. (2019). Connections Between Sensory Sensitivities in Autism; the Importance of Sensory Friendly Environments for Accessibility and Increased Quality of Life for the Neurodivergent Autistic Minority. PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.15760/mcnair.2019.13.1.11