Autism does not have a monopoly on Sensory Issues
29th October 2021
Sensory issues are often found in autism and include a person being either over-sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hypo sensitive) to certain stimuli. For example, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
When we do autism profiles on individuals, it has become quite apparent to me that the ‘sensory issues’ section of these profiles is in some cases, quite sparse compared to the other sections.
One common misunderstanding about sensory issues and autism is that only people with autism have sensory issues.
Sensory issues are indeed a large part of autism. But autism does not have a monopoly on sensory issues!
We once did a (small and informal) study and found that it was not possible to tell whether somebody had autism or did not have autism purely based on sensory issues that are present. Sensory issues are likely more prevalent in autism, and perhaps more severe. However, they do exist in the general population.
How many of you can relate to not being able to stand certain textures of food, or touching certain things?! These are all sensory issues.
Ask any room of non-autistic professional people if they need to go home to write a report to focus, and you’ll get a show of hands. This could be because they are hypersensitive to noise, or it could be because they can’t concentrate due to the people who keep walking past their window (a hypersensitivity to movement).
This does not mean that they cannot work in a busy environment; they may like it for a while or be able to manage it OK. But they should be allowed to go to a quieter place where they can concentrate if they need to.
On the other hand, look at how many who enjoy occasionally working in a coffee shop, full of noise, movement, smell, and even emotional stimuli (emotion can be sensed, too). These people feel productive in these environments and are therefore likely to be under (hypo) sensitive to the sensory environment.
Again, this is not to say that this person can never work in a quiet environment. Just let them go somewhere busier and nosier if they feel like it.
Stranger sensory issues
There are also other conditions like dyspraxia, which include a large element of issues with balance, proprioception, and knowing where your body is in space.
Knowing where you are in space is a sense (proprioception). It helps when you can sense where parts of your body are in space. If you can’t sense this easily (are under-sensitive) then you are more likely to break things, walk into things or drop things. This can cause anxiety.
I can cause collateral damage by accident quite easily. For example, by misjudging how hard I am twisting a door handle and pulling it off.
When I was younger, I also used to experience what I believe is referred to as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, or something similar.
Especially at night in bed, I used to sense my body parts to far be larger than they were. It was like my hand or head suddenly just grew huge, like a giant's hand or head.
I did not see this (or I just didn’t look because I was too scared), I just felt it.
It was bizarre, and I still occasionally get this feeling but to a lesser extent and throughout my whole body.
Helping to reduce hypersensitivities and stimulate hyposensitivities
Somebody told me recently that weighted blankets have become popular over lockdown. People who are hypo (under) sensitive to touch (specifically deep pressure), will find weighted blankets calming and anxiety-reducing.
If you are oversensitive to some things, and under-sensitive to others, we have found that if you stimulate the sense that is under sensitive, it can lessen the negative effect of the oversensitivity.
For example, Elizabeth, founder of Aspiedent CIC, is hypersensitive to noise and movement. This can cause her severe sensory overload, especially in places like gyms where they like to play loud music and have people buzzing about everywhere in no particular pattern.
She is also not sensitive enough to deep pressure (a touch sense). She discovered that when she was hitting boxing pads in the gym, this enabled her to relax and cope much better with the overstimulating gym environment.
This meant that she likes it when she is paired with a man when doing boxing drills, as they can punch her hands (in pads) very hard. This makes her more relaxed, and able to cope with her over sensitivities. It reduces her stress in general.
It would be interesting to sensory profile everybody at a particular company, for example, and see what sensory issues employees all have. Would we, for example, find patterns of sensory issues within different professions and sectors?
We once spoke to a business who was quite aware of neurodiversity who told us their marketing department liked a noisy environment, whereas their IT department preferred quiet. Luckily, each team was in a separate part of the building!
When we do training about autism to employers, non-autistic participants often tell us that they indeed struggle concerning various senses. For example, some can’t stand having music on in the background when working, whilst others find it helps them to concentrate and are therefore turning it up (much to their colleague’s frustration)!
As explained above, when others need to write a report, they will simply go home. They know that they won’t be able to concentrate in a noisy or movement-filled environment. This is more than a preference; this is a sensory need.
Like anything when determining reasonable adjustments for employees, you need to make sure that a reasonable adjustment that is implemented is a need and not just a want. Doing a neurodiversity profile on an employee will reveal what these needs are and why (and shows what they don’t really need).
The move to open-plan offices has not helped with sensory issues, and it appears offices are now breaking up spaces again to allow for people who are oversensitive to various things (noises, smells, movement) whilst also catering for people who are the opposite and thrive off these things.
As with many of these things, you find more extreme issues, more often within autism, and therefore it is something that should be investigated if an employee discloses they are autistic. However, it is certainly not limited to autistic people.
Aspiedent’s profiling tool (which we use for workplace assessments on neurodiverse individuals) is designed to pick up on the main sensory issues that are causing difficulties for an individual and provide appropriate recommendations. If a full sensory profile is required, we can signpost you to other organisations that specialise in this. If there are no specific difficulties, adding in more information may cause confusion and over accommodation.
To improve productivity in your workplace and get the most out of your employees – why not investigate what sensory needs they have and then try to design the workplace around them? This is not possible in many environments. However, you could provide alternative areas that are designed to counteract other sensory overwhelming/underwhelming places.
It is not a case of segregating people who are, for example, under-sensitive to noise from those who are oversensitive to noise. Having these sensory issues doesn’t mean people will always need or even want to work in separate ‘suitable’ environments. However, giving people a choice by creating different areas of workspace (e.g. a quiet zone and a busy zone) and policies that cater for different sensory needs makes a lot of sense.
If you do, you may find you get less stressed employees and more work done!