Understanding Sensory Experiences
Have you ever been to a lecture in the centre of a busy train station?
Almost 60% of learners surveyed by Altogether Autism described sensory issues as ‘very challenging’ in tertiary education, with one survey participant describing lectures as “a bombardment of buzzing lights and air-con, clicking pens and seats being kicked.”
Sensory experiences like this can cause anxiety and make it hard for an autistic person to process all the information they are receiving. This can cause stress and anxiety and lead to withdrawal, shut down and/or meltdown, which can be both physically and emotionally exhausting for them.
“Under this kind of stress, my sensory issues are heightened, and I hear every little sound. I see everything and nothing on the paper at the same time and get a headache from the fluorescent lights.” (Autistic tertiary student)
Surprisingly, sensory accommodations were ranked well down the list of types of assistance requested by autistic learners in our survey – listed below requests for assistance with mental health, executive functioning, and communication issues. Almost 50% of survey participants had never asked for support with sensory issues.
Survey respondents listed a variety of reasons for not seeking support:
- Not wanting to disclose their diagnosis. One student commented: “I do not seek supportas much as I could because I am trying to fit ”
- Notknowing that support was available
- Not realisingthey could ask for help until it was too late.
- Disliking‘confrontation’ with
In terms of specific sensory supports, 58% of learners surveyed said that a more flexible learning environment is needed. 37% percent of learners surveyed identified breakout spaces as a sensory support that is needed in their tertiary institution.
In addition, 31% of whānau members who took part in the survey wanted to see an increase in knowledge around sensory issues for autistic learners.
Understanding instructions in assignments, exams, and assessments
Sensory-friendly spaces on campus are a great way to acknowledge an autistic student’s need for regular breaks from the physical and social demands of school life.
Sensory-friendly breakout spaces can have a dual purpose: they are a place for neurodivergent learners and staff to connect and socialise, and also serve as a place of calm for those learners who need physical rest after social interaction or after being in a high sensory environment. These spaces can be a place of respite, where there are no social, sensory or time demands on the student.
“I mostly need space on campus where I can be myself and be alone. When I need space, I usually spend some time in the bathroom, which isn’t ideal, if there was a space for me to recover from social interactions that would help me the most.” (Autistic tertiary student)
Features of a breakout space may include the following:
- Naturalor adjustable lighting
- Acousticpanels for sound absorption/low noise
- Comfortable, moveable, andmouldable seating, e.g., bean bags, yoga mats.
- Sensory aides available, e.g.,weighted blankets, fidget toys etc.
- Aclear and logical layout with defined areas suitable for quiet time, socialis ing and
Furthermore, a map identifying high and low sensory ‘zones’ around the wider campus can also be helpful for learners looking to self-regulate their sensory input while navigating campus life.
Survey respondents found both benefits and disadvantages in having breakout spaces available on campus. Some appreciated having a place where they could connect with other autistic learners, while others found socialising with other users “incredibly awkward if you aren’t with an extrovert.”
Co-designing on-campus sensory friendly spaces can be a collaboration between autistic learners, whānau, on-campus disability services and external disability organisations. This is a positive strategy which acknowledges the importance of including and amplifying the voices of autistic learners.
There are opportunities for both proactively and retroactively designing sensory friendly spaces by assessing accessible features of existing buildings and incorporating sensory accessibility as part of the planning process for new builds. This will create a welcoming and inclusive space for all learners with additional needs.
Similarly, understanding and adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles is not so much about addressing the needs of a few, it is about creating an accessible and inclusive educational environment for all. Creating physical and sensory environments where everyone has what they need is a great way to show that a tertiary institution values all of their learners.
You Can Support Your Learners by:
- Encouragingand normalising the use of sensory aides, such as noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys, Irlen lens glasses, assistance dogs etc., in your class. These can lessen an autistic student’s anxiety and improve their ability to concentrate on their
- Reviewingyour physical classroom What can you do to create a predictable, sensory friendly and welcoming learning environment for your autistic learners?
- Recognising that autistic learners many need extra preparation and recovery time due to their sensory needs. Many survey respondents commented on how hard it is working in a large (or small) study group, describing the social and sensory demands as physically and emotionally exhausting: “Every aspect of large-group learning is too overwhelming and people do not seem to understand how much that impacts my ability to “show” my skills. I hate it so much that I lost so many marks on assignments just because I couldn’t focus in the environment I was in. In addition to this being extremely exhausting for me so I knew that every time I had a laboratory class, I couldn’t plan on doing anything else for that day.” It is important that extra time for autistic learners to prepare beforehand and rest after study group interactions is factored into their day
- Ensuring learners with sensory needs can access accommodations for exams. “Sometimes a person clicking a pen continuously or a calculator making a noise or too bright lighting can really have an impact on our exam outcomes. People don’t understand that it’s more than annoying, it’soverwhelming.” As this student explains in our survey, exams create a particularly challenging sensory experience. Imagine trying to sit an exam in the middle of a busy train station! Ensure that you engage with autistic learners in the lead up to exams, to see if there are any accommodations, they need to alleviate any anxiety around this already stressful experience.