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Autistic "Sensory Hell" at Work







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In a recent Linkedin survey, I asked autistic professionals what the hardest part about working is for them. Many shared that their nervous system was always in a state of high alert, due to the sensory environment around them. In other words, sensory hell.




Causes of Sensory Overload

Human beings reacts to their environment in different ways. As I write this, tree trimmers are lined up and down my street. I hear chainsaws, pounding, and the roar of their trucks...and lots of loud talking. It has been going on for two days and my nervous system is amped up and on high alert. Thank goodness my coaching clients cannot hear the noises while we meet. Neither my son or my husband or even my huskies seem bothered by all this. Clearly, we are all wired differently.


When I asked autistic professionals what type of sensory issues they were experiencing at work, they shared examples like you see below. You probably have your own list. It comes down to feeling little or no control over your environment.



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Results of Sensory Overload

When autistic and AuDHD folks experience sensory overload, their very complex and fragile nervous system goes into high alert. At the same time, many autistic folks also experience alexithymia, which is the inability to understand one's emotion, feelings or sensations. This makes the overload very confusing. In this situation, you may know something is going on but have a delayed understanding of what it is. When I've asked clients what they are feeling, they sometimes joke that "they'll get back to me in a week." What they are saying is that it is not immediately apparent what one is feeling in the middle of the overload or overwhelm.


In these moments, whether you realize it or not, your heart rate and blood pressure often escalate, your digestion stops working properly, and you may begin sweating. Some folks experience headaches and feel dizzy or light-headed.


Soon, you may become very uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Your amygdala is agitated and you may be headed for an autistic meltdown or shutdown.


Getting out of Sensory Overload

  • If you can identify the stressor, remove yourself from it. Example: If you hear loud noises, walk away from the sounds for a bit or put on noise-cancelling ear phones or ear plugs. Sacred Space's life coaches can help you learn more about what sensory experiences hijack you and you can make a plan of how to create a more comfortable work experience together.

  • Come to work as rested as possible so the discomforts feel less uncomfortable. Figure out what foods make you feel satiated and keep your blood sugar levels right. Again, a coach or someone who knows you best can help with that!

  • Can you ask for a work area away from the kitchen smells or whatever sensory experience is most stressful?

  • If the temperature is constantly bothersome, dress in layers. I often bring a heavy shaw when I'm in public for those time. Taking a break and leaving your work area for a few minutes and walking around might help warm you.

  • Take a walk outside for a few minutes. Leave a note on your computer that you'll be back in a few minutes.

  • Discuss changing your lighting with HR or your boss, if possible. Need an advocate and to plan this interaction? Feel free to contact me for help!

  • Practice creating a boundary around touch with a trusted friend or family member, so that you can let coworkers know if a touch on the shoulder flusters you or hugs and shaking hands is not comfortable. Since Covid, many workplace employees touch less but it still may be an issue with your team. Some folks tell me that explaining that you just aren't a toucher helps. Say it with a smile.

  • If practical and in your budget, pick out a few clothing pieces that usually feel comfortable and stick with them. I can do a free short consultation helping you make these selections, if you'd find that helpful! We help folks do that often.

  • Strategize with someone you trust about asking for an accommodation that allows you to work from home as often as possible, if your job allows. Meet with human resources and explain this need and what would help, such as working from home or at least moving your workspace away from the issue.


Smiling woman with a smile, glasses, and afro. Is wearing gold shirt and clasping a cup in both hands.
The joy of creating a more soothing environment

My team and I are here to help you strategize ways to create a more comfortable work environment or even pursue another job that works better for you. Schedule a free consultation with us, or if you'd like more time, we can always meet for a strategy session to get you on the right track. Life is too short for painful working conditions. Let's create a better environment together.


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