More Companies Are Adopting Sensory-Friendly Practices—Here’s How Your Business Can Follow Suit 

UPDATED: February 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 15, 2024
sensory-friendly lighting at a store

Picture heading into a busy shopping mall on Black Friday. There are people, scents, sounds, noises and chaos everywhere. For those with sensory processing issues, including those with ADHD, autism, PTSD and other conditions, this can feel like an attack. It definitely doesn’t make them want to take their time perusing the racks for their next purchase.

Employees, clients and managers can feel this type of overwhelm in their own workplaces too. There can be large, crowded rooms full of cubicles and equipment, disturbing fluorescent lighting and bombardment with a wide variety of noises—coupled with less access to sensory-friendly resources and environments. 

Numbers vary, but research estimates that up to 16.5% of people have sensory processing challenges. So, for business owners, a notable portion of their population—from customers to employees—might not be experiencing their bustling office or store environment in the most beneficial or lucrative way.

What does ‘sensory-friendly’ mean and how are companies evolving?

Walmart has created sensory-friendly hours from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. to be more inclusive of all shoppers and employees. In contrast to that bustling shopping mall, Walmart’s sensory-friendly hours are intended to be less stimulating—televisions are turned to static images, the radio is off, and lights are lowered.

According to Axios, this is the biggest shopping program of its kind to date. Other companies have also prioritized more helpful environments, such as AMC Theatres, which hosts sensory-friendly showings of films.

Others are looking to ease the stressors of the hiring process in particular, which can be difficult for neurodivergent applicants. Dell has a neurodivergent job application system, and Microsoft has a Neurodiversity Hiring Program, for example. In a 2019 story published in The New York Times, readers received a glimpse into how upsetting and disorienting a job interview can be for Ben Hirasuna, a person with autism who often doesn’t leave home for weeks. Given the variety of experiences and needs, from an employee’s first interaction with a company to their day-to-day surroundings on the job, improving environments to be more sensory-friendly is becoming a higher priority for companies. 

What is sensory-friendly in the workplace?

Dr. Lawrence Fung, director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project and the Neurodiversity Clinic, also has a son on the autism spectrum. 

“People on the autism spectrum often encounter sensory challenges, such as hypersensitivity to noise, bright light, etc. However, sensory differences, either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to any sensory modality, are common in people on the spectrum. Many of my patients have struggled at work due to their sensory differences,” he says. 

His recommendation to businesses is simple and inclusive: “build sensory-friendly environments.” He explains, “I will apply universal design principles to make sure that the changes are helpful not only for those who have sensory challenges, but for all workers.” For example, nobody works well in noisy environments. 

“Having a copy machine next to the workspace is not only a problem because of the noise of the machine, it is also a problem because of the people traffic near the copy machine. People will talk near the copy machine, which can be quite distracting,” he says. Intentional design is at the heart of solving this issue for neurodivergent employees, clients, customers and managers, but also for everyone.

John Elder Robison is a neurodiversity scholar at College of William & Mary, New York Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye and others and owner of JE Robison Service, an auto restoration and service company that employs neurodivergent people. He seconds the idea of optimizing the environment for all.

“The idea that we must create this for sensory-sensitive people is false. Everyone benefits from soft, natural light, comfortable floors and a warm and welcoming space. The fact that some people are willing to work in cubicles inside windowless concrete buildings does not make them good or right,” he says. “You might say neurodivergent people are like canaries in the coal mine. Those conditions are intolerable to us, and we insist on change, but they are undesirable for everyone.”

How to make your business sensory-friendly

When someone is having a sensory challenge, it can be multifaceted. Meg Raby Klinghoffer, who holds a master’s degree in speech language pathology and is a partnerships specialist at KultureCity, says, “These individuals experience challenges processing sensory stimuli pertaining to the eight senses—including the infamous five senses, but also three others most are not familiar with. These are the vestibular (inner ear and balance), proprioceptive (body awareness) and interoceptive (emotional and internal state) senses.”

Here’s what she hopes companies will implement to lessen dysregulating stimuli:

Raise awareness and educate employees and employers

“Businesses should focus on first raising awareness of the 1 in 4 that have a sensory processing challenge or difference and provide education. Key information to go over includes defining what sensory processing challenges are, how this manifests and what can be done in the workplace to come alongside these employees and employers facing sensory overstimulation or understimulation,” she says.

Provide a flexible work environment

“Providing a flexible work environment allows individuals who are overstimulated or understimulated to create a workspace that suits their sensory preferences. This may include offering noise-canceling headphones, adjustable lighting or a designated quiet space for decompression or focused work,” she says.

Offer customized workstations

Invest in ergonomic chairs, adjustable desks and specialized tools that can help mitigate sensory challenges.  Allow employees to customize their own areas as they want to.

Incorporate sensory-inclusive break areas

“Consider incorporating calming elements such as comfortable seating or sensory-inclusive tools such as fidgets,” she says.

Equip employees with the right tools for the job

If an employee is taking hard copy notes to avoid the overstimulation of typing, but others need an electronic version, provide employees with different options—such as a tablet that easily turns notes and drawings into a saveable and sendable document. Some employees might prefer headphones geared toward reducing annoying background noise. Everyone loves a soothing fidget or stress ball in a meeting space as well. Alternate seating for crossing your legs or using alternative positions can relieve stress and tension associated with sitting formally all day too.

Make the investment in your people

In a world full of asks crowding into your budget, this is an ask to prioritize. 

“All too often, schools and businesses see these accommodations as necessary evils or money they’d rather not spend, even though the executives of those places would never live in such spaces,” Robison says. “Yet they rationalize uncomfortable environments with ‘it’s how work is,’ or ‘we can’t afford this.’ Companies that get past that thinking will come out on top, as those are the places where people who have the freedom to move will want to be.”

Photo by sommart/iStock.