Over 2021 we ran a series of focus groups to learn more about the sensory experiences of autistic people in public places such as supermarkets and more. Every autistic person is unique, and therefore factors which might make an environment easier for one person may not have the same effect on someone else. However, from the information that people gave us, we identified six themes that appear to impact on how easily accessible or inaccessible a location is for autistic people. You can read more about each theme and how we used these to create our ‘sensory web’ on our page about principles of sensory environments.
Learning about the views of autistic children
As well as learning about how the sensory aspects of public places can affect autistic adults, we were also interested in finding out more about their impact on autistic children. We were lucky to link with the Queensmill Trust who support a range of children across greater London with a specialism in supporting autistic pupils. They were kind enough to host a discussion session where staff members and parents discussed how the sensory environment of public places impacted on their children’s engagement and enjoyment of these locations. The session included staff who work in Early Years, Primary and Secondary settings to explore experiences across different age ranges.
Staff identified that there are a range of factors which can impact on a child’s ability to engage with and enjoy specific locations. This can include managing anxiety around unknown or unexpected inputs such as sounds or smells. They also reported that it is not just the environment itself that can have an impact on a child but also the reactions and behaviours of other people in the space. This includes other members of the public as well as staff (e.g. sales assistants or wait staff). Learn more about what they found in the discussion group in our page about the sensory experiences of autistic pupils.
Links between our findings and the discussion group
We identified that several of our themes about autistic adults from the focus groups resonate with information from the discussion group about autistic children. While these cannot represent the views of all autistic people, as everyone’s perspectives are unique, these similarities give an insight into aspects that autistic people might find more challenging in public places.
Both groups identified environments can have challenging sensory inputs such as loud noises and high numbers of other people which can contribute to a more challenging sensory environment (or sensoryscape). However, one of the main challenges in public places is that inputs can be unpredictable and unexpected which can make these more overwhelming. As identified in the discussion group, this unpredictability can make children more anxious about being in certain spaces. When they are given time and space to explore new inputs themselves (even ones which are intense or more extreme) they may find this less challenging or even enjoy it.
As identified in our focus groups, in the discussion group people highlighted the importance of understanding and empathy from others. Negative attitudes by people due to a lack of understanding of autism and sensory processing can lead to situations becoming more challenging and reducing a person’s enjoyment of a space.
People in both groups also identified the importance of increasing accessibility and ensuring that existing adjustments actually benefit autistic people. This includes considering the placement of sensory rooms or spaces to recover so that they can be easily accessed within venues. It also includes ensuring that ‘quiet hours’ in supermarkets and relaxed performances are at times that people can easily attend.
To enable successful change, both groups identified that public spaces need to focus on making changes to both the physical and social environments and to consider how different factors may overlap and interact with one another. Changes to support autistic people need to take in a diverse range of reactions and perspectives into account to ensure that adaptations are not tokenistic.