Research Background

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. In 2021 we ran a series of online focus groups and asked people to answer a range of questions on our social media pages. We also worked with staff at a special school to learn more about how sensory processing difficulties affects their autistic children’s experiences of public spaces.

We are using what we have learnt to create an event in August 2022 which explores how supermarkets can be a challenging place for people with sensory processing differences and what businesses can do to help. Free tickets are available now!


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 one 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).

Autism and 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.

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.

Research has found that differences in processing sensory information are common in autistic people. Studies suggest that the percentage of autistic children who experience sensory processing difficulties may be as high as 69% – 95% (Hazen et al, 2014). Individuals with sensory processing differences may find certain sensory inputs to be more challenging, meaning that spaces with those inputs can be less accessible for autistic individuals.

See our page on Sensory Processing Differences for more information.

Why do we want to learn more about sensory processing differences?

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 learn more about sensory processing differences in autism.

However, 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.

How have we learnt more about Sensory Processing Difficulties in autistic people?

In 2021 we ran a series of online focus groups and asked people to answer a range of questions on our social media pages. We also worked with staff at a special school to learn more about how sensory processing difficulties affects their autistic children’s experiences of public spaces such as supermarkets and restaurants. See our page on Our Findings to learn more about what we learnt.

Immersive Event

From the 19-20th of August we are holding an event at PEARL in Dagenham to share our findings. We are working with our partner Sensory Spectacle to design an event which brings together our findings from our focus groups and social media. We want our event to be informed by autistic people’s sensory experiences and to show how supermarkets can be disabling sensory environments and inspire ways to make these spaces more enabling.

Free tickets are available now at: https://sensorysupermarket.eventbrite.com

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