Sensory sensitivities are evolutionary advantages, but these advantages also lead to challenges, as society can feel chaotic for those with complex sensory needs. Crowded, loud, bright, or otherwise chaotic spaces can, for example, cause a neurodivergent person to experience sensory overload. The sensory challenges neurodivergents face are serious, yet many people don’t seem to take neurodivergents seriously when we speak about our sensory challenges.
Unexpected touch, fragrances, chattering, extreme temperatures and changes in temperatures, uncomfortable clothing, fluorescent lights, ticking clocks, the hum of air conditioners, chattering, shouting, even gaslighting—these cause pain for those who experience high sensitivity. Repeated exposure to pain causes trauma.
Repeated exposure to challenging sensory environments can cause a sensitive person to develop anxiety. A person who is highly sensitive may, for example, develop social anxiety or agoraphobia as a result of attending school, working in hospitals, restaurants, grocery or retail stores, in warehouses, and in offices, especially those that play music, have televisions, or open floor plans.
When a neurodivergent employee feels overwhelmed, begins to sob in response to a chaotic work environment, or abruptly flees a chaotic work environment, people around them tend to assume this person is misbehaving, or is overreacting, and is solely experiencing emotions. The neurodivergent may believe this about themselves as well. I certainly have, especially during a meltdown wherein my mind felt more chaotic than my environment.
What’s really happening is that the brain is overwhelmed, “full”, and can’t consume anymore stimuli. For each physical response, there’s another feeling, an “emotional” response. This dual coding of emotional and sensory responding can turn workplaces into trauma sites. Workplaces are therefore common sites of trauma as repeated exposure to sensory overload can cause sensory trauma.
It’s important to encourage disclosure because disclosure enables disabled and neurodivergent employees to seek and acquire accommodations. And when one employee discloses, others may feel empowered to disclose as well. Multiple disclosures may enable an employer to rethink their customs. Though not everyone knows whether they’re neurodivergent and not every neurodivergent person has a diagnosis.
People do know when certain environments disrupt their focus—when, for example, fluorescent lights give them migraines. Employers will notice improvement in employee well-being as well as increases in productivity if they choose to believe their employees—if they accommodate their employees’ needs, whether or not a law is forcing them to do so.