Managing your sensory environment

Academic Life

Articles for students and families transitioning into higher education.

Managing your sensory environment

  • Rachel Wakefield Drohan
  • 19/05/2021
  • 4 minutes read

I’m in the classroom. I’m surrounded by students who are talking and laughing. Someone is playing tinny pop music in a corner of the room. There are bright fluorescent lights overhead. I can hear the clinks and crashes of a building site on the tree lined street outside. 

For most people, their brains are able to take all this sensory input and tune out the aspects of their environment they don’t wish to pay attention to. They have a filtering system that allows them to exist easily in a world of constant, unrelenting sensory input. For many autistic people, this is impossible. I’m hypersensitive to light, sound, and touch. On the other side of this, I’m hyposensitive to movement so I need to move around at times to stop myself from becoming excessively agitated. For me, this difficulty with sensory input is one of the characteristics of autism that affects me most in my day to day life. 

In an educational context, difficulties around sensory processing can present a significant barrier. It wasn’t until 2013 that sensory hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity began to be included in the criteria for the diagnosis of autism. There are a number of therapies out there that are aimed at assisting with sensory processing issues but there is no clear evidence that these therapies are beneficial from an empirical standpoint. There are perhaps autistic individuals who have found them helpful but because of this lack of evidence, I would not be inclined to recommend them. They are often costly and their efficacy is questionable. 

Because sensory processing varies so much from one autistic person to another, this can make giving any specific advice next to useless. Instead, I think there are a number of general ways we can think about managing our environment. I think that knowing yourself is the bedrock skill for coping with whatever gets thrown at you in your life. If you know what tends to cause sensory overload in you or you know that you need a certain level of sensory stimulation, you can have a number of strategies for these situations. 

There is a distinction to be made between proactive and reactive strategies when it comes to managing your sensory environment. The steps I would take prior to going to class to minimise my chances of sensory overload or satisfy my need for sensory seeking are proactive. For example, I go running in the morning so that my need for movement won’t interfere too much with my class time. Let’s pretend that one morning, I don’t go for a run because I’ve had to do something else and I go to class and I can’t concentrate because I have this need to move around. In order to cope with this, maybe I’ll take my leave for a few minutes and walk briskly around the building, thus satisfying my need to move around. This would be a reactive strategy because I’m reacting in the moment and not planning ahead. In the long term, developing proactive strategies to aid you in day to day life is the most beneficial approach to coping with your environment and keeping you on an even keel. 

Before diagnosis, I was unconsciously utilizing a variety of reactive strategies to help me but unfortunately this approach can have a debilitating effect on your mental health and can make you feel as if you’re living from crisis to crisis. To avoid long term burnout, proactive strategies are vital. 

The key thing is to identify your own needs and manage these as best as you can. Inevitably you’ll be in a situation you can’t control. Many classrooms have fluorescent lights or are

excessively noisy and through knowing yourself and your limits, you can come up with ways to go to class and not experience excessive discomfort. Whether that means bringing your noise cancelling headphones or something small to stim with, you can start to develop routines around coping with your sensory environment. Thinking in this way is helpful not only in an educational context but can be useful in every aspect of your life. 

There can be some level of difficulty around asking for accommodations for sensory processing issues from teaching staff. I think that sensory processing issues are difficult to understand from the perspective of the general population. I believe that many teaching staff would benefit hugely from having to do mandatory training around communication with students with disabilities. Too often, our needs can get overlooked or we can be made to feel as if we’re asking for a handout when we’re asking for something that is at best a minor inconvenience to staff and and will go a long way in making a disabled student feel much more comfortable in the classroom. A kind word can go a long way. 

It can be useful to disclose to teaching staff in advance so that they will be aware that you might need specific things from time to time and perhaps not be able to communicate with them adequately at the time due to sensory overload etc. Again, this comes down to your specific needs and you will be the best judge of those. 

What happens if you’ve tried your strategies and you still feel overloaded or like you need to leave? I think that many of us have been conditioned to ignore our own discomfort in favour of staying and trying to do an activity, which leads to feeling much worse later on in the day and can have a knock on effect on your mental health. I would encourage you to leave and send a polite email to say as much when you feel up to it. Although colleges and staff place 

an emphasis on attendance, this should not come at the expense of your wellbeing. If you need a few hours on your own in an environment you can control, you should be kind to yourself and take it. 

Learning to know yourself is a lifelong project and one that will at times frustrate you. Self knowledge and understanding will serve as the foundational skills that allow you to flourish. It can be difficult as an autistic person to feel as if you have certain limitations that others do not have. Being autistic can be at times a joyful experience but also a painful one. The world does not seem to be designed for people like us. Despite this, we are making our own way in the world, to the best of our abilities. So be kind to yourself and to others. All you can do is your best.


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