How do the sensory aspects of an environment impact autistic people’s experiences of that space?
How can we educate people about sensory processing differences and inspire them to make public places more enabling for autistic people?
These are the questions that our Wellcome Trust funded project Sensory Street aims to answer. Our research and Sensory Supermarket immersive event have shown how public places can be challenging sensory environments for autistic people and what can be changed to make them more enabling.
We value co-production, and collaborate with autistic individuals at all stages of the project.
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference in the way that people communicate and interact with the world around them. A recent research study identified that around 1 in 57 or 1.76% children in the UK are autistic (Roman-Urrestarazu et al, 2021). Other estimates have ranged from 1 in 44 (2.27%) in America (Maenner et al, 2018), 1 in 21 (4.7%) in Northern Ireland (Department of Health Northern Ireland, 2022), and 1 in 100 worldwide (Zeiden et al, 2022).
What are sensory processing differences?
Autistic people commonly experience differences in the way that they process and respond to sensory information, which can be associated with distressing as well as enjoyable experiences. Studies suggest that the percentage of autistic children who experience sensory processing differences may be as high as 95% (Hazen et al, 2014).
Some autistic people may respond more to sensory information, meaning that they can find inputs, such as sounds or lights, to be painful and overwhelming. Others may respond less to sensory information, meaning they do not notice sensations such as someone lightly touching their arm or certain smells. Some people may enjoy seeking out certain stimuli, such as preferred smells or tastes.
See our page on Sensory Processing Differences for more information.
Although our focus is on autistic experiences, it is important to note that sensory processing differences are not unique to autism, as they are also present across the general population and common in other groups, such as ADHD and Fragile X Syndrome (Ben-Sasson et al, 2009).
Why do we want to learn more about sensory processing differences and public spaces?
In 2021 the UK Government published its national strategy for autistic children, young people and adults: 2021 to 2026, which highlighted that autistic people can feel excluded from public spaces because of the impact of challenging sensory inputs and negative reactions from staff or members of the public. This paper highlights the need for people and businesses to learn and adapt to ensure that autistic people are supported and included within society.
This has also been identified by the autistic community to be a key priority, and in reflection of this, Autistica (an autism charity which funds and campaigns for research to support autistic people), has recently made it one of their 2030 goals to make public places more accessible for autistic and other neurodivergent people.
Research to date has often focused on characterising what sensory processing differences are for autistic people, as well as identifying what a person themselves could do differently to cope in more challenging environments. There is limited evidence exploring what environments can do differently to support autistic people and how these can make the world more enabling.
Unlike the medical model, the social model of disability sees an individuals restrictions or challenges as a problem of society rather than the person themselves. By removing barriers, we can help to create equality for everyone, offering people increased independence and control.
Our aim is to understand more about how autistic people are disabled or enabled by sensory environments and provide education to make public places more inclusive and enabling for autistic people.
What have we learnt so far?
In an online focus group study we found out about which public places autistic people find disabling and enabling. We also identified 6 principles that underpin whether these places are disabling or enabling. Alongside the research, we engaged autistic people through our social media channels and worked with staff at a specialist school to learn more about sensory experiences from a range of different people. Learn more about what we have found in the ‘our findings‘ pages.
Informed by this research, we held the Sensory Supermarket event at PEARL in Dagenham on the 19-20th of August, in partnership with Sensory Spectacle. This event showed how supermarkets can be disabling sensory environments and highlighted ways to make these spaces more enabling.