Workplace sensory adjustments

February 3, 2017 - Daniel Aherne

Sensory processing difficulties – Autism and sensory adjustment in the workplace – Adjust Services lightbulb icon

Workplace sensory adjustments

The National Autistic Society recently released figures showing that just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment. This astonishingly low figure suggests three things: firstly that many employers are not aware of the benefits that autistic employees can add to their workforce; secondly, that many organisations do not understand which reasonable adjustments they need to make for autistic applicants and employees; and finally that many organisations do not understand what autism is. This is not surprising given that a study by Goldsmiths, University of London shows that only 12% of employers have received training on autism.

On Adjust’s Autism Understood in the Workplace course, one of the key topics that we cover is how autistic employees are affected by sensory stimuli.  Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD) are common amongst employees with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD.  As part of our training courses, we discuss how to work with employees to identify SPDs and then how to implement practical adjustments to assist with these difficulties, so that employees can achieve their workplace potential.

SPDs are often overlooked, and can have a significant impact on an employee’s success.  For instance, did you know that many autistic adults are unable to concentrate in an open-plan office because of the background noise? That is just one example of a SPD. To explain more Adjust have partnered with Becky Lyddon, founder of Sensory Spectacle, an organisation aiming to increasing understanding and awareness of Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD):

“Our senses are how we understand and respond to our environment. This is how, when we are developing as a child we develop skills such as hand eye co-ordination, the awareness of two sides of our body etc. All of our senses are vital every day we use them constantly, most of the time without realising.

It is said that over 75% of autistic people have SPD. A SPD is when the brain finds it hard to do its most important job, which is organising and responding to information it receives. People may be over-sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive) to certain sensory stimuli and find it difficult to know how to respond to their sensations. Due to this, SPD can greatly impact concentration, attention and the ability to complete tasks.

As Daniel mentioned, noise is a common distraction in an office environment. Some people have said they find it difficult to tune out the unnecessary sounds, others say it seems like everything is at full volume. This is an example of hypersensitivity: the brain finds it hard to know what is important at that time and so processes all of the information it is receiving. This can happen with any of the seven senses.

Sensitivity to noise at work can be very unpredictable, especially if you work in an environment where certain times of the day are busy and others are quiet. One way you can support employees with auditory sensitivities is to offer quieter work areas. This could be an area of the office where talking is reduced, or where there is limited technology. For people who are sound sensitive, technology is one of the biggest sound inputs, as all technology creates frequencies which interpret into sounds. We have a Sensory Spectacle installation called ‘Being Ben’, which we use at workshops, to help people to experience how it might feel to hear their surroundings like this. Other simple measures that can help sound-sensitive people include headphones and pop-up workstation dividers. These dividers also greatly benefit people with visual processing difficulties as they reduce visual distractions, thereby increasing focus.

Fluorescent lighting and reflective surfaces can be painful and distracting for some people with visual processing difficulties. Visual patterns can be another distraction, these could be patterns on the floor or the walls, or could simply be cluttered desks. Patterns can be extremely overwhelming and disorientating, as they produce a lot of visual information for the brain to receive and process. Heavily-patterned environments can make it difficult for a visually-sensitive person to move from one room to another, or from outside to inside. Sunglasses or hats can be worn to reduce visual overload and are especially helpful if the room is bright and reflective.

Certain times of day are likely to affect employees with SPD. Mealtimes are a good example of this. Do you have a designated place to eat or can staff eat anywhere? Smells are very difficult to remove and control, and overpowering smells can cause headaches, and as a consequence distractions, for people with SPD. It is therefore best to limit eating to designated areas. If the workplace has a canteen the cooked food will produce lots of aromas. These are sometimes pumped through vents to mask other smells – and, of course, don’t forget that almost everyone wears deodorant, washes their hair and launders their clothes with fragranced products. See if you can improve the air in your workplace by minimising the number of contributing odours, for example by limiting use of air fresheners.

At work we are expected to follow certain social conventions: we may be expected to shake a visitor’s hand when greeting them, to sit in a particular seat during meetings, or to wear a workplace uniform. Conventions such as these may be difficult for employees with a SPD relating to their tactile sensitivity. If you recognise these in your workplace, think about what adjustments you could introduce. For example, perhaps you could introduce an alternative way for staff to greet visitors?

While showing some of the ways in which autistic people may experience the workplace, I’ve offered suggestions for reasonable adjustments you could make for someone with SPD. However, if you are able go further and actually make alterations you could help your employees further. Reducing fluorescent lighting and introducing adjustable lighting would be a great place to start, as would using matt rather than gloss materials for surfaces. Incorporating carpets and soft furnishings into the workspace would help reduce the sound load also.

One last thing to be aware of is the impact that information can have on our sensory processing. Each day we receive information through a variety of channels: emails, meetings, phone calls, notes and voicemails. All these pile up to be processed and organised. If someone finds a screen too bright to work from, or painful to look at for long periods of time, then consider alternative means of sharing information. Printed visual instructions, whether picture- or text-based, can be a really supportive way of ensuring someone has necessary information available to them. These are especially effective for people who may become overwhelmed with the noise of their work environment. Ask these employees which methods of communication they prefer to use. If email is vital then find ways to ensure they’re able to manage their inboxes. Their settings could be edited to show just five emails at a time, or you could help them to prioritise their messages. Personalisation is the most important thing to remember: something which helps one employees’ sensory needs is not guaranteed to be effective for another employee.”

My thanks to Becky for highlighting sensory areas that are so often overlooked by employers.

Employers have a duty under the Equality Act (2010) to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff and Becky’s advice offers many great examples of these. It’s vital to remember that the root causes of a difficulty that an autistic employee may be experiencing might not be immediately apparent. On Adjust’s training courses we discuss SPDs as well as other ways to make your workplace more inclusive for employees with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD.

As a manager or HR professional, understanding the impact that your organisation’s working environment has on your employees is the first step towards meeting your requirements under the Equality Act. What’s more, you’ll increase the likelihood of retaining your talented employees and, ultimately, increase your organisation’s productivity.

Daniel Aherne , Adjust and Becky Lyddon, Sensory Spectacle.