Managing your sensory experience in College

College Life

Articles for students and families transitioning into higher education.

Managing your sensory experience in College

  • Kevin McLoughlin 
  • 18/05/2021
  • 6 minutes read

Hey everyone! I am Kevin, I am 21 years old, and I am halfway through my Third year in NUIG. These years have been wild and formative for me in so many important and meaningful ways, but the one I am here to write about this time is actually managing your sensory experiences. You see, as I am sure most of if not all of you know that autistic people can be opposed to change and as you can imagine being in the one building (maybe two) for your entire secondary school experience, having five to six years to grow accustomed to your environment and then a sudden permanent change is quite stressful. That is what I am going to be covering today as well as three ways I have found to gain some control back over it.

I have had the luxury of working with Magda Mostafa, a wonderful professor with whom I have given multiple talks about autism and design. She works on how you can incorporate autism friendly design into all kinds of public buildings which is great. But here is the thing, as someone who has now seen how great it can be, it also highlighted to me some of the more nebulous issues that I could not quite put my finger on before. Let us be honest, unless the building is brand new, you are most likely going to be learning in ill designed lecture halls. These spaces often leave so much to be desired in terms of their design especially from a sensory perspective, often times the room is completely open, leaving you with sensory input from, commercial strength strip lighting in most cases, every noise those around you are making being amplified and, in my case, the constant hum of a projector. All of these are difficult to deal with at first and after working with Magda and finding what I would consider “perfect” sensory spaces and solutions I have managed to come up with a little survival guide for those of us trying to navigate a very imperfect sensory world

So, what are the seven tips to survive the imperfect sensory world in college. Well, I have seven for a normal college year and afterwards I will give you my four for this year with COVID-19.

  • Well rule number 1 is to know oneself; you need to understand your own triggers and your hyper/hypo sensitivities so that you can learn how to best handle them, in my experience you learn through experience not many other ways. 
  • The second rule is fairly simple, do not let the sensory environment of your college alter your mood drastically, if you’re worried or anxious about adapting to this new environment, remember that you have done it before whether you realise it or not, and as such you will be able to do it again.
  • The third rule is asap register with the disability service in the college, they will not reveal your disability to anyone else in the college without your permission, but they can offer technical assistance, access to quiet study spaces and advice that is often invaluable.
  • Fourth thing is my favourite, find your default sensory protection, this sounds dumb but in my case I wear a pair of tinted blue sunglasses and whether I am listening to music or not, while I am simply walking around campus not talking to anyone, I have my headphones on, this looks to everyone else like I’m just a student listening to music on my way to class, in reality its blocking out large amounts of sensory input that I am well aware I would not be able to handle otherwise.
  • Fifth, take the time in your spare time, to explore the campus on a normal day, walk around near where you know you will be hanging out with friends, going to classes etc, pay attention to the sensory environments, note areas that simply don’t work for you, I cannot for the life of me walk past the vents above the canteen in NUIG, the sheer overwhelming smell of delicious food is way too much all at once for my sensory system, so I found the routes around it going the same place avoiding the problem.
  • Sixth, I tell my lecturers and my tutors about my autism, you do not need to, but the reason I do so is so that I can explain why my participation on certain days will not be as good as on other days, and that is fine. To recognize my limits and accept that some days I will not be in a sensory space to engage in the discussion, and some days I may even have to leave due to that sensory space, is believe it or not, quite the positive, it prevents burnout honestly. No one would mark you down if it is clearly explained what is going on, you can even get the disability service to do this for you in most colleges if you want to.
  • Seventh, work for the change, if you find an issue that is prevalent in your university then something as simple as writing an email complain about the issue to the accessibility office in your school might seem like it wont do anything, but if we normalise it, then as they got more complaints from more people they will eventually deal with the issue, stuff like swapping out the lighting for less harsh options, putting acoustic traps into lecture halls to reduce background noise and echo, these are all things that have taken place across Europe as people have made their college aware that they want these more accessible changes.

I really hope those seven guidelines help you all, but this year they are not as relevant to some of you as they will be in the future so here, we have a few more rules for working from home and controlling that sensory environment.

  • My family are childminders, noise is inevitable, yes for a while now there have not been any kids but no doubt before college is finished this year, there will be children in the house, and I will be studying while they are here. There are sensory inputs that just are out of your control and expecting them to change is naïve, the answer is to control the specific environment where you work. If you do not have a desk try to get one, if you cannot get one, find a working surface that is isolated from the noise, in my case my sister’s old bedroom (she moved out so she only uses it when she visits) is the most isolated centre I can think of.
  • When you have found a potential work centre to base yourself off, here is a checklist to go through to see if it’s really suitable.
    Is this a relaxation space normally? (If so, can I avoid using it as such during the semester?)
    What are the unchanging sensory inputs in this space?
    What are the controllable sensory inputs in this space?
    How much time do I plan on spending in this space every day?
    How organised can I keep this space?
    In my case my sisters’ room is directly above the room we mind children in; therefore, I will get a certain level of background noise regardless of what I do some of the time. This space is not a usual relaxation space for me so it’s not a space I will procrastinate in that much, I cannot change the temperature of the room so that is one sensory input I cannot control here. I can control the level of sound input by closing the door, using headphones etc in this space, I can also control the level of light with a lamp and the curtains. Finally, I can keep the desk in this room very organised.
    Review this analysis and ask yourself, is this where you can do your best work, or more leniently, is this the best place to do work in the situation you are in.
  • From here experiment with your controllable sensory inputs, find the level of input that is best suited to productivity for you, for example I am very easily distracted by sound, but I require bright light to maintain focus and attention, so I played around with using noise dampening headphones, earbuds, a speaker, a spotlight lamp and just leaving the curtains open during the day to find the ideal conditions for productivity for me.
  • Finally, be lenient with yourself, no one in history has had to do what we are doing before, its stressful, it’s often scary, and sometimes it’s very isolating, if you need to take a break, get some sensory relief (in my case listening to old gruff sea shanties judge me if you will). Take a walk, watch some tv primarily you just need to take a breath, let yourself calm and continue. All of us are unique and all of us need to recognize our own limitations during this strange time.

I hope that these four rules for managing your sensory experience in a socially distanced college year are helpful. I would definitely suggest checking out Magda Mostafa, her TED Talk, her website, and her design guidelines. She may be an architect, but those guidelines can be easily applied to almost any space, from a study room to a household. 


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