Hi all. This next piece is a guest article from my Mum (J). I had hoped to write an article on this issue myself, however the experience is too fresh, and it would be impossible to for me objective about it. While J is not on the autism spectrum, she describes my experience of sensory overload very well and has obviously been paying attention when I talk about Asperger’s Syndrome. (Just a quick note on the timescale, J wrote this piece just under a week ago, on the same day I formally quit my office based job in Leeds). So without further ado, here’s her perspective on sensory overload in the workplace….
Gwen started a new job just over two weeks ago. Since starting, she has rapidly become more anxious and stressed, with an increase in her daily dose of citalopram giving scant relief. I’ve done my best to be understanding, trying to help her sort out what wasn’t working and look for solutions. Even Ninja Mummy can’t (and shouldn’t) try to fix everything. She’s an adult now and needs to make her own decisions. But standing aside when you sense an imminent meltdown has always been a tough call. After a flurry of email conversations with her new employer, the inevitable decision came yesterday……..there simply wasn’t enough they could do to make her work environment more suitable. It was time to leave.
On arriving at her workplace this morning (sadly Gwen was too stressed to travel alone and once again her Support Worker wasn’t available), the reason behind her anxiety was soon apparent. I was sitting in the entrance lobby of the building, an old Victorian School redesigned as a very swanky Business Centre. Almost straight away, I felt overwhelmed by the level of noise and the amount of people coming and going. The building had high ceilings with bright lights and trendy wooden floors. It was without doubt an architect’s dream of sympathetic modernisation, but a complete nightmare for someone with sensory issues and ASD. The large reception area led into an open plan office, with only a thin pane of glass separating the two. This entrance was overlooked by a swanky café, complete with a noisy barrista style coffee machine, hard chairs, and leather settees……… no soft furnishings, curtains or even pictures that might absorb some ambient noise.
I closed my eyes, and tried to put myself in Gwen’s shoes. I soon felt overwhelmed by the level of noise : the noisy trolley rolling along wooden floors laden with glasses for washing, the slurp of a hot drinks machine, high heels on wooden floors, distant music, doors slamming and people chattering as they made their way in and out of the surrounding training rooms, not to mention the distant roar of cars coming in and out of the car park and the main road outside. Added to all this was a strange whooshing hum which I assumed to be some kind of internal heating / ventilation system.
These sounds were all things you might expect to hear in a modern workplace. So what’s the problem? Close your eyes. Imagine I’m talking to you now. Imagine you can hear all those sounds, but hear them just as loud as my voice whilst we’re having this conversation. At the same time, imagine the lights are uncomfortably bright, and your nostrils are being hit with a range of overpowering smells and sensations. How does that feel now? Do you feel stressed? That’s just a small glimpse of what people with ASD and sensory processing issues experience on a day to day basis. We all take for granted our ability to filter out background noise, but many people with ASD don’t have this, meaning “normal” background noise can easily distract them and cause high levels of anxiety. Add to this the pressure of dealing with the institutional jargon and unfamiliar body language of new colleagues and it’s a toxic cocktail.
So what can Neurotypicals do, and why should this concern us? The first thing we have to do when someone with ASD is struggling in a new environment is listen more, put ourselves in their shoes, and try to understand why. Secondly, we need to think harder about reducing the risk of sensory overload in the workplace. The shine and polish of a modern office environment might make us feel hip and attractive, but for some people with autism it’s a living nightmare. If we’re serious about supporting people with disabilities to work it’s time to challenge our own views of beauty and normality. We need to engage a wider range of experiences in the design of public buildings and make sure everyone with different needs has the right support to create an environment that’s safe and comfortable for everyone to work in.