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Some people may experience sensory overload is crowded places. Photo: Adobe Stock

Strides being made to create access for people with sensory-processing differences

Recent initiatives across the Lower Mainland show that awareness around different sensory needs is growing

By Emily Blatta , in City , on April 9, 2024

Before leaving the house to go grocery shopping, Keyn Chris Parkinson checks their wallet to make sure they have an emergency pair of earplugs on them.

“It’s busy and loud,” said Parkinson, “and it’s a lot of people around, especially those who are not very socially aware.” 

Parkinson, who is in their twenties, has lived with depression, anxiety, and ADHD since they were a teenager. Recently, they were diagnosed with autism. These diagnoses make them more sensitive to environmental stimuli such as bright lights, loud sounds, and crowded spaces. The result is that tasks like grocery shopping can feel daunting.

Parkinson isn’t alone in this experience. Many neurodivergent people, as well as people with mental-health disorders, are faced with sensory overload in public settings. 

In Canada, at least 600,000 people are neurodivergent, and 18 per cent of people aged 15 and older met the criteria for a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder in 2022. Research suggests that overstimulation is common among these groups of people. 

Across the province, certain grocery stores now offer reduced lighting, limited noise, and increased staff support during select hours. Last fall, BC Place opened a permanent sensory room, a quiet space designed by medical professionals for visitors with different sensory needs. 

Such accommodations are part of a larger movement to make spaces more accessible to people who are sensitive to stimuli.

“One of the big ones tends to be auditory sensitivities. It can start to feel very stressful if there’s too much noise in an environment,” said Rose Freigang, a registered psychological associate who works with individuals with mental-health disorders and people with developmental differences. 

“The person’s nervous system kind of gets ramped up. And then that just makes it very, very challenging to do the tasks that you’re needing to do,” she said. 

The impact of sensory-processing differences not being considered is far-reaching, said Freigang. When people and their responses are misinterpreted, relationships can suffer and stigmas can be reinforced.  A worst-case scenario, said Freigang, could be someone losing their job if certain behaviors are misunderstood or get in the way of job duties.

Some people like Rena Del Pieve Gobbi, who lives with bipolar disorder, have had to avoid certain spaces altogether. 

“When I was younger, my difficulty was my illness was more severe. And, for a while, I couldn’t go into shopping malls, and it wasn’t just the lighting. It was the sounds of that many people kind of reverberating,” she said. 

In one municipality, small changes create opportunities for participation 

The City of Surrey’s sensory-friendly initiatives are one example of how small changes can make people with sensory-processing differences feel more included. With support from the Canucks Autism Network, sensory-friendly spaces have been made available at various city facilities and events.

“In the past little while, we’ve noticed an increase in people with sensoryprocessing needs,” said Soraya Elchehimi, who works on the city’s accessibility and universal-design team.

The idea behind sensory-friendly spaces was to provide a calm, quiet resting point for people who are overwhelmed, she said. 

One of the City of Surrey’s sensory-friendly spaces. Photo: City of Surrey

Permanent spaces are now available at the Museum of Surrey and the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre. All major events now also have sensory-friendly tents where people will find supportive features such as bean bag chairs, fidget toys, and noise-canceling headphones. 

“It’s for diverse populations, so not just children and adults,” said Elchehimi. “Anyone can use them.”

Last fall, the city also launched a pilot project that introduced sensory-friendly swims to the South Surrey Indoor Pool and the Surrey Sport and Leisure Complex. The project offered public swims curated to meet the needs of people with different sensory-processing needs.

By turning off water features, limiting announcements, and providing people with equipment such as headphones and earplugs, “you have families who now can attend events who may not have attended prior to that”, said Elchehimi. 

The pilot project ended but was brought back for a second round in March. 

Programs such as this “just widen participation,” she said. The swims were not only popular among families and individuals with sensoryprocessing needs, but also among seniors. 

“I guess a lot of the work we’re doing now is just providing that information early so that people with different processing needs know that they can attend our events and participate in events without barriers”, said Elchehimi.

Initiatives such as these are a great start, and there is still potential to strengthen the accessibility of different spaces, said Freigang. When sensory needs are acknowledged from the get-go, accessibility can be built in through certain design features.

For example, by opting to use acoustic tiles over ceramic ones, sounds have less of an echo. Freigang said that sensory-friendly design choices, alongside implementing more break rooms with dimmable lighting and other relaxing features, can go a long way.

“I think access to that kind of space would probably be helpful for everyone.”