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Sensory Sensitivity and Understanding the Effects

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This month’s blog is going to focus on sensory sensitivities and the struggle to adjust in an environment where you are constantly triggered. Recently, I attended a training session on maintaining neurodiverse employees. The training focused on how neurodivergent employees have the potential to be extremely effective in their jobs as long as they receive the reasonable accommodations they may seek.

I thought a lot about this training afterwards and wished that something like this would have been offered to some of my past employers, especially their Human Resources teams. Having gone most of my life without an adequate diagnosis hindered my ability to request accommodations that affect my ability to be effective at my job.

I am sensory sensitive. What does that mean? I am hypersensitive to my environment and in general to the world around me. When I was a child, I remember my mom scolding me often for being “too sensitive” and I never understood what she meant because I always viewed the word “sensitive” as a feeling, an emotion, a state of being. As hindsight is 20/20, I realize now she never meant it in the emotional way.

She meant it in all the other ways. I spent a great part of my adulthood proving that I am strong emotionally because I took that feedback specifically. Let’s talk about what she really meant, “sensory sensitive”:

  • Physical touch: Socks, I hate socks. I dislike how the line doesn’t line up on top of my toes. In fact, when I wear socks now as an adult, I get seamless socks to avoid this issue. I also don’t like being touched unintentionally. This could literally be as insignificant as brushing against the shower curtain. I can be physically affectionate, but it requires a level of trust that I do not give to even close friends and some family.
    • The COVID-19 pandemic helped a lot with this element because people are less likely to be in close proximity to you, because they don’t want to get sick. I hope that practice continues. It has also shifted many careers to hybrid work, which is what I currently have.
  • Taste: I have always been very picky about my foods. The textures of the food have to be soft and warm. If the texture does not agree with me, I am unable to force myself to eat it. I would literally starve first. I dislike cold, hard, and often crunchy foods, which accounts for a great deal of vegetables and fruits. I compensate for this by always bringing my own lunch or getting my own lunch.
    • If forced to partake in an office lunch setting, I communicate my special needs with the host. Although, I have been known to pretend to eat my food just moving it around on my plate and appear to be conversational with others at the table, so it is not obvious.
  • Visual stimulation: I am sensitive to an overabundance of florescent lighting. If I am placed in an environment where the lighting is too much and I am not able to take breaks, I often become aggravated, and it is very difficult to mask.
    • When I am given my own office space, I compensate for this by bringing in my own lamps with softly lit bulbs. I also set up my computer to be on the dark settings so that the screen does not bother my eyes. I utilize a bionic reader if I need to read long documents full of text, this helps guide my eyes through the document.
  • Sound: I have to like the sound to be able to tolerate the sound.
    • I carry noise cancelling ear buds with me everywhere.
  • Smell: If I am overwhelmed by a smell, I have to remove myself from the location. If I don’t, I experience extreme headaches and nausea. Honestly this one is non-negotiable and can force me to go home to deal with the physical response extreme smells induce.

For the most part, I can tolerate certain things for a little while but the bodily shutdown I experience afterwards is nearly unbearable. When I have been overstimulated for more than 8 hours, I will completely shut down mentally. I need to keep lights out when I come home. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep at 8pm after a really long day then wake up at 4am confused and start the next day too early.

There are ways to adjust to this overstimulation, but as I get older it has become a lot harder both physically and emotionally. I realize this will likely mean I need to make a shift to a career that will sustain me in a more tangible work environment, specifically, remote with minimal travel work. However, I am hoping I can continue to work hybrid for some time longer because it has been nice to have an office to go to if I need to.

For one past job experience, I was provided high cubical walls to avoid the continuous distractions of individuals walking by my desk. The problem with it was that everyone thought I got special treatment, versus medical accommodation and ultimately that misperception served as a barrier to build rapport and work relationships with other staff. This leads me to my plug for why Human Resources professionals need more education on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging concepts.

Many are very educated on the importance of these issues, but their high-level knowledge does not always transfer into specific instances. With the rise of individuals realizing they are neurodiverse, there needs to be more education on how to better support those employees. This education should also be presented by Autistic, ADHD, and/or Neurodiverse individuals themselves. Since we often understand the best way to accommodate us, there are many really amazing speakers out there that identify as Autistic would be happy to speak at your organization to discuss ways to employ inclusion, acceptance, and belonging.