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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Surviving a Sensory-Unfriendly Work Environment as an Autistic Individual

Updated: May 15

By Patty Laushman


The modern office environment can present many challenges for many people. One challenge that many autistic individuals face is having to work in a sensory-unfriendly environment. When an autistic individual experiences sensory sensitivities in their work environment, the typical office setting can transform into an overwhelming and distressing nightmare. This reality poses a barrier to the professional success and well-being of many autistic individuals.

An office worker struggling to finish her work, sitting with her elbows on the desk with her head rested in her hands.

This blog post will uncover some of the sensory challenges autistic individuals often face in the work environment and provide strategies for overcoming these challenges. My goal is not only to shine a light on these hurdles but to also equip you with practical strategies to transform your office experience from merely survivable to truly thrivable.


Sensory Challenges Autistic Individuals Face in the Office

The first step to overcoming sensory challenges is identifying what these challenges are. This section lists the most common sensory challenges autistic individuals face in the workplace.


Sensitivity to Lights

Bright ceiling lights lighting up an office.

Bright or fluorescent lighting is common in many office settings. However, this type of lighting can often be overwhelming, particularly for individuals who spend extended periods in such environments, because the light itself is unnatural and uncomfortable. Some people can actually see them flicker and hear a buzzing sound they make, which can be extremely distracting. 


Noise Sensitivity

Many autistic individuals also experience challenges with background noise in office environments. Common sounds such as conversations, phones ringing, and even the subtle hum of electronic equipment can be distracting or cause distress. This sensory input often leads to a state of sensory overload, making it difficult to concentrate and perform effectively.


Difficulty with Temperature Regulation

Some autistic individuals face unique challenges related to body temperature regulation. This difficulty can lead to heightened sensitivity to the ambient temperature in an office environment. As a result, changes in temperature, whether too hot or too cold, can be uncomfortable and very disruptive for them.


Sensitivities to Smells

An autistic man plugging his nose in disgust.

Autistic individuals can also encounter challenges with strong smells in office settings. Tuna salad for lunch, anyone? These overpowering odors often stem from sources like perfumes, cleaning products, and certain foods. These scents result in an uncomfortable and distracting atmosphere for any autistic within range.


Tactile Sensitivity

The texture of certain clothing, such as professional office wear or shoes, can be uncomfortable for some autistic individuals. The feel of office furniture may also cause discomfort. Lastly, this sensitivity extends to a dislike of physical contact, including handshakes or pats on the back.


Self-Advocacy and Communication

Self-advocacy is a powerful tool for autistic individuals. It involves knowing your needs, clearly communicating them to your employer and colleagues, and knowing how to respond to their thoughts on your proposed changes. This section offers strategies to help you advocate for a sensory-friendly workspace.


Research Workplace Policies

Many companies have policies around diversity and inclusion. It’s important to understand these policies as they provide a framework for requesting accommodations. Being knowledgeable about your company's stance on these issues allows you to make informed requests and engage in constructive discussions about how the workplace can be adapted to fit your needs.


Prepare Your Case

Clearly explain what specific accommodations you need and how they will support the company. For example, if you are sensitive to fluorescent lights, you could ask if you can wear a hat that blocks the light. Providing concrete examples of how these changes can improve your ability to work demonstrates a proactive approach and helps your employer understand the practical benefits of implementing these accommodations.


Disclose Without Disclosing

An autistic employee advocating for her needs with her manager.

While it could be tempting to mention your autism being a part of your sensory sensitivities, you don’t need to do that if you don’t want to. It’s possible to signal your needs without revealing your autism. This can be helpful in cases where you want accommodations but revealing your autism may cause problems within the company’s culture.


Use Clear, Specific Language

Be direct about your needs. Instead of using vague statements like "I sometimes find the office uncomfortable," explain what part of the environment is causing discomfort. For example, you could say, "The buzzing sound from the fluorescent lights is distracting and causes me discomfort. I would be able to be so much more productive if I could wear a hat or have a lamp on my desk with an incandescent bulb.”


Know Your Limits

Understand what you can tolerate and what is non-negotiable. For accommodations that matter to your well-being, it's important to be firm in your requests. This involves asserting the necessity of these accommodations while also being open to discussing alternative solutions that may also meet your needs.


Prepare for Questions

Some employers or colleagues may not immediately understand your needs. Therefore, be prepared to explain in detail how these sensitivities affect you and why certain accommodations will help your well-being and productivity. This explanation can include examples of how certain environmental factors impact you and suggestions for how changes can make a difference.


Employers may become immediately defensive, and it’s important to understand their perspective. Companies only get to keep the privilege of staying in business when their income outpaces their expenses. Anything that they perceive as costing them money can be interpreted as a threat to the company’s well-being. 


Try to approach these conversations as a collaboration or even a negotiation where you are trying to create a win-win situation. You are asking for something from your employer, and you are trying to offer them something in return, whether that is just the ability to do your job or to do your job even better. Employers, like everyone, need to know what’s in it for them.


Deal with Misunderstandings

If misunderstandings happen, remain calm and clear in your communication. Staying composed helps you reiterate your needs and the reasons behind them. It's also helpful to be patient and understanding as it may take time for others to fully grasp your perspective.


Personal Coping Strategies

Although it’s important to advocate for a sensory-friendly workplace, there are also many personal strategies that autistic individuals can use to manage sensory challenges in the office that don’t require anyone’s cooperation.


These strategies focus on creating a personal workspace that minimizes sensory distress and techniques to manage sensory overload.


Adjust Your Immediate Environment

Small changes in your workspace can have a big impact. Consider using noise-canceling headphones to dampen ambient noise or bringing in a desk lamp with adjustable lighting if overhead lights are too harsh. If possible, choose a workspace away from high-traffic areas.


Use Sensory Tools and Aids

An autistic individual holding a colorful push pop bubble fidget toy shaped like a car.

Items like stress balls, fidget toys, or tactile mats can be discreet and effective for managing sensory needs. If you like the sensation of pressure, try a weighted lap pad. These tools offer a way to focus or find relief during moments of sensory stress. They can be especially useful in environments where sensory overload is a concern, such as in busy workplaces or public spaces.


Recognize the Early Signs

Learn to recognize your early signs of sensory overload. Some potential signs include increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, or physical symptoms like headaches. Early recognition allows you to take steps to lessen the overload before it becomes overwhelming. 


Emergency Coping Strategies

Have a plan for when sensory overload occurs. For example, you could retreat to a designated quiet area to regroup and calm your senses. Additionally, you can try incorporating sensory aids like tactile objects. Furthermore, having a prepared script or an agreed-upon signal to inform colleagues that you need a break can be an effective way to manage these situations.


I have worked with clients on creating a “shutdown prevention prescription” that they load into a note in their phone. Once they reach a 5 to 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of their likelihood of shutting down from overwhelm, they just open the note and follow the steps to bring their overwhelm down. 


Flexibility in Work Arrangements

If possible, discuss flexible work arrangements with your employer. Options like telecommuting, flexible hours, or part-time work can reduce your exposure to sensory triggers commonly found in office environments. These alternatives not only offer a more comfortable working condition but also cater to your specific sensory needs.


Seeking Support and Building Alliances

Managing sensory challenges in the workplace isn't a task you have to undertake alone. Building a support network and finding allies within your workplace can enhance your ability to manage sensory sensitivities. This section explores how to seek support and promote understanding among colleagues and human resources personnel.


Leverage Human Resources

A woman meeting with a human resources representative.

Human resources (HR) professionals can often provide guidance on company policies, suggest resources, and mediate conversations with your supervisors or team. Additionally, HR can suggest resources, both within and outside the organization, that might help you out. 


They also play an important role in moderating conversations with your supervisors or team members. This allows your requests to be communicated effectively and for your necessary adjustments to be understood and implemented.


It’s really important to remember that ultimately, HR personnel work for the company and not for you. Whatever they do for you also needs to work for the company, so if you are asking for something unreasonable or very expensive, they are not going to be able to help you. There are many things they can do, though, that can help, so if you can’t get your needs met any other way, it may be time to bring HR into the situation. 


Document Your Needs

Provide HR with clear documentation or a written statement of your sensory sensitivities. Accompanying this with suggestions for reasonable accommodations can be helpful. This detailed approach not only helps formalize your requests but also ensures that they are thoughtfully considered and taken seriously.


Seek Expert Advice

Consider consulting with occupational therapists or other professionals like the autism life coaches at Thrive Autism Coaching, who specialize in sensory processing and autism. These experts can provide individualized strategies tailored to your needs and challenges. They can also be well-equipped to offer workplace-specific advice. Their expertise can be invaluable when identifying effective coping mechanisms and adaptations for the workplace. 


Conclusion

This blog post has explored strategies autistic individuals can use to manage sensory challenges in an office environment. From communicating your sensory needs to personal coping strategies, each section has provided tools and insights aimed at creating a workspace that helps your well-being and productivity.


It's important to acknowledge that this task might have its challenges and setbacks. However, each effort you make contributes to a larger change. Whether you're self-advocating for your needs, adjusting your personal workspace, or engaging in a dialogue with HR, your actions have the power to not only improve your own work experience but also to educate and inspire those around you.


These strategies present a starting point that can be tailored to your specific needs and circumstances. If you are an autistic individual struggling with a sensory-unfriendly work environment, know that you’re not alone. There's a growing awareness and understanding of neurodiversity, and with continued advocacy and education, workplaces can become more accommodating of all employees, regardless of their neurological makeup.

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