Reducing sensory overload is one of the most beneficial things you can do to support neurodivergent employees and learners as part of building an inclusive culture in your organization.
If you’re neurotypical, you can probably read this without giving much thought to what else is going on around you. You might not notice the sound of a lawnmower outside, or a fan running, or how bright the light is coming through the window.
For many neurodivergent people, particularly autistic people, it’s impossible to filter out extraneous sensory inputs. I’ve been extremely sensitive to smells for as long as I can remember, but a head injury ten years ago caused me to experience sensory overload with visual and auditory inputs.
In the first year or so after my injury, my sensory overload was so bad I couldn’t drive. My brain tried to read every sign I passed and observe every car and tree. Even as a passenger, I rode with my eyes closed because the visual inputs were overwhelming.
Processing visual information has gotten easier for me, but even now, more than ten years later, I can’t filter out extraneous noise. I can’t ignore sidebar conversations. I struggle with videos that have voiceover narration AND background music. (As I’m writing this, I had to move to a spot in my house where I couldn’t hear the music my husband was playing.)
And please, for the love of Netflix, don’t talk while I’m watching a movie.
Many neurodivergent people experience sensory overload every day. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and dizzying. There are ways we can make things easier for the neurodivergent people in our lives, including employees and learners in our organizations. This post shares some ways you can reduce sensory overload, building on my post called Designing for Neurodiverse Learners.
Don't ask us to multi-task.
No one actually multi-tasks well, but for some of us, trying to do two things at once usually ends up in neither task getting done right. For me and for many neurodivergent people, focusing on one task can be enough of a challenge without adding another. It becomes even more difficult when dealing with sensory overload.
An example from my personal experience is trying to follow a recipe while having a conversation—or while someone else in the room is talking, even if not to me. There’s something about going back and forth between the instructions and the ingredients list that requires a lot of concentration for me. And it’s worse if I’m making any adjustments to the recipe, such as substituting an ingredient to accommodate my family’s many allergies, or doubling the recipe. (I have dyscalculia as well, so numbers are hard.)
If I’m trying to have a conversation (or filter one out) while following a recipe, my brain can’t keep up. Things usually don’t end well. I can’t tell you the number of inedible concoctions I’ve created because I was baking while distracted. (Ever had lemon cookies without any sweetener? Trust me… don’t.)
Worse, I’ve burned myself many times because my brain was so overtaxed that it didn’t send the correct signals. My brain often mixes up left and right, so instead of picking up a hot pan with the hand that has an oven mitt on it, I may grab it with the one that doesn’t. I’ve even come dangerously close to putting my hand into hot oil. Besides the physical consequences that multi-tasking sometimes has for me, the sensory overload causes overwhelm and frustration.
Don't require us to take notes.
Personally, taking notes helps me pay attention. Otherwise, my mind wanders off. I also need the notes to refer back to later because I have memory challenges. But for many others, it can work exactly opposite. My husband, who is dyslexic, cannot listen and write at the same time. So those participant workbooks I used to create, with blanks for filling in notes while the instructor is talking, would not work well at all for him and other neurodivergent learners like him. (Besides, it’s not the most effective way to teach anyway.)
I read a post recently from a neurodivergent man whose boss requested that he take notes during a meeting. He responded that he could not, and he reminded his boss of the accommodations he had requested. His boss insisted he take notes anyway. This of course led to frustrations and an all-around bad day for that person. Failing to accommodate for disabilities can also lead to lawsuits for your organization.
Don’t be that boss. Listen to what your team members and learners are telling you they can and can’t do. If they push back on a request, don’t assume it’s laziness or a bad attitude that are driving the objection.
Be considerate of interrupting our work.
One of my pet peeves from my days of co-located work was when someone would send me an email and then come to my office and ask, “Did you get my email?” They’d want to talk about it right away. Please don’t do this to your co-workers.
If I’m focused on a task, I need to ignore that email until I get to a natural stopping or pausing point. This isn’t a neurodivergent quirk; it’s just how most people work best. But for neurodivergent people, interruptions can completely derail a thought process, or even an entire day.
Here’s an example of how to do it wrong: I worked for a company with a policy that all emails had to be answered within two hours. I get it—responsiveness is important. But not at the expense of employee well-being and productiveness.
Now that I have my own company, one of our work norms is being mindful of interrupting our teammates’ workflow. If we have a question, we’ll send it in a text or email with the understanding that the other person will answer when they can. I never expect instant replies. If we need to talk, we’ll ask if it’s a good time to call. A little consideration goes a long way toward making everyone more productive.
Besides managing communications, another way to protect people’s time is to schedule meetings (including training) in a smart way. Some people prefer to schedule all their meetings in one or two days, leaving the rest of the week open for project work. For others, a marathon of meetings in one day is exhausting to the point of being debilitating. In general, allowing some down time between meetings and protecting work time by setting aside one or two days a week as “meeting-free” days can be helpful for all employees, not just neurodivergent ones.
Let us control our lighting.
I’m convinced that the fluorescent light was invented as a torture device.
Fluorescent lights induce stress and negatively affect sleep. For many of us photosensitive types, harsh lighting also triggers migraines, vision issues, and other health problems. I’m also sensitive to some LED lighting (depending on the brightness and color) and other bright lights, including sunlight.
A loved-one-who-shall-not-be-named visited my house and opened up all the blinds. She commented, “There, isn’t it better to see outside and let the sunshine in?”
No, for some of us, it really is not.
I’ve seen instructors do the same kind of thing with the classroom’s lights. Turning up the lighting to the full brightness might help keep learners awake, but it could also trigger a debilitating migraine, extreme anxiety, or sensory overload. If you can, dim the lights slightly so they’re less harsh. Turn off the lights in the front of the room, which cast a harsh glare when participants are looking toward the front at the instructor.
If you’re in charge of a team, allow your team members to have control over their own lighting if possible. If it’s not possible to adjust the lighting, ask your team members (especially neurodivergent ones) if they’d like to move to another space that’s less bright. Consider removing the bulbs from the fixtures above their desk. Or let them work from home.
When I used to go to work in an office building, I was fortunately able to turn off the lights in my office. But often, someone would stop in to chat and flip the lights on, saying something like, “Why are you sitting in the dark?”
<Cue the Mindy Kaling reaction: How dare you?>
Bottom line: Don’t make lighting decisions for someone else.
Don't make us turn on our cameras.
There are many reasons someone may want to turn their camera off during video conferences and virtual learning—and a lot fewer reasons that justify keeping them on.
Continuing the thread from the previous section, there have been times I’ve joined a Zoom call while sitting in the dark, with my laptop display dimmed, because of a migraine. If I’d turned on my camera, all you’d see is a dark shadowy figure. Like the Mind Flayer from Stranger Things, but with fewer limbs. And hopefully less carnage.
Most people are familiar with the concept of Zoom fatigue by now. But for many neurodivergent individuals, it goes beyond fatigue into burnout and complete overwhelm. Here’s an insightful article about how autistic people experience Zoom fatigue.
Be mindful of noise levels.
As learning and development professionals, we know the value of collaborative learning. But unfortunately, collaborative learning strategies are generally implemented with only neurotypical (and usually extroverted) learners in mind.
The noise of five table groups talking at once as they complete small-group activities can be overwhelming to a neurodivergent learner. They may struggle to differentiate between what their own group members and everyone else in the room are saying. Allowing groups to work in separate breakout rooms can alleviate this sensory overload.
Likewise, explicitly communicating group norms can be helpful for neurodivergent learners (as well as everyone else). It can be overwhelming to be thrown into a group-work situation without clear expectations as to who should be doing what, or how precisely the task should be approached.
We must also consider our workspaces. Open offices and cubicles are the enemies of the neurodivergent. Some people claim that they lead to better communication and collaboration, but from what I’ve seen, they usually result in office spaces where people talk less, because one conversation disrupts everyone’s workflow.
The easy solution to distracting workspaces is for employees to wear headphones. However, that doesn’t work for everyone or every issue. Headphones don’t block out visual distractions. And some people are unable to tolerate wearing them. For some, it’s a sensory issue. For me, it’s a migraine trigger.
Many of us do our best thinking in quiet spaces. Others need noise to be able to focus their thoughts. The only one-size-fits-all truth is that we’re all different, so we need to be in control of the noise level around us whenever possible.
The best way to let people control the noise level around them is to let them work from home.
Here’s a recap of the tips I shared for reducing sensory overload for neurodivergent employees and learners:
- Don’t ask us to multi-task.
- Don’t require us to take notes.
- Be considerate of interrupting our work.
- Let us control our lighting.
- Don’t make us turn on our cameras.
- Be mindful of noise levels.
If you take away just one thing from this post, let it be this: we all learn and work differently, so we need to be in control of how we learn and work.
For this reason (and others), the single-most beneficial thing you can do to help neurodivergent people and others with disabilities be successful in their jobs is to let them to work from home.