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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Learn more about sensory processing disorder and potential accommodations

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Principal Consultant, Team Lead

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavior responses. When someone walks or swims, eats ice cream, or listens to music, completion of the activity requires processing the sensation.  

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. Imagine a neurological traffic jam that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information accurately. A person with SPD will find it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses. This creates challenges in performing numerous tasks daily.  

Symptoms of SPD, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad range of severity. While most individuals have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, those with SPD may have chronic difficulties that disrupt everyday life.

Issues with touch, sight, sound, smell, texture, balance and movement, body position, and body awareness can all cause adverse, or uncomfortable responses. Individuals may only be affected by one sense – for example just touch, sight, or movement, or they may be affected by multiple senses. Individuals may over-respond to sensation and be unable to tolerate clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input. Yet someone else might under-respond with little to no reaction to stimulation, even to pain or extreme hot and cold.

Individuals with SPD may not be able to acquire socially appropriate responses and tools as easily or effortlessly as those without sensory processing difficulties who begin learning how to integrate sensory information from birth.

Let’s look at this on a practical level and imagine how it might play out in the workplace. Think about your work environment and the things that might be problematic for individuals with sensory issues:

Working in a restaurant or in an adjacent office space might cause a problem because of the pervasive smell of food cooking. Retail areas where merchandise such as bath and body products or tires are sold may be problematic.

Some employers require their employees to wear uniforms, hats, or specific footwear that workers may find difficult or impossible to tolerate. Working in areas of extreme temperatures may also cause problems.  

Our JAN offices are located on a main artery through town. The portion of the street that runs in front of our building is also a state route. We hear the continuous roll of trucks, horns blaring, and the sirens of emergency vehicles. A busy call center with the constant ringing of telephones and background chatter may be troublesome as well.

It is easy to see why accommodations in the workplace may be essential for individuals with sensory processing disorders to thrive in their environments. See the common accommodations ideas listed below that might be effective:

  • Fragrance Sensitivity:
    • Maintain good indoor air quality
    • Discontinue the use of fragranced products
    • Use only unscented cleaning products
    • Provide scent-free meeting rooms and restrooms
    • Modify workstation location
    • Modify the work schedule
    • Allow for fresh air breaks
    • Provide an air purification system
    • Modify or create a fragrance-free workplace policy
    • Allow telework

Situation: An employee in a large office space was having difficulty with the various smells that assailed her on a daily basis. She disclosed and asked for an accommodation.

Solution: The employee was accommodated with a modified workplace policy that allowed her to chew gum in order to help ward off the smells she found difficult to tolerate.

  • Fluorescent Light Sensitivity:
    • Move employee to a private area to allow for personal adjustment to appropriate lighting
    • Change lighting completely
    • Allow telework

Situation: A computer analyst with extreme sensitivity to fluorescent lighting was having great difficulty performing the essential function of his job in an office with overhead fluorescent lighting. The employee asked for an accommodation of telework, explaining how productive he could be when working from home by eliminating all fluorescent lighting. 

Solution: The employer agreed to allow the employee to work from home for a two-month trial period. They agreed to meet at that time to evaluate the situation and determine if a more long-term accommodation of telework would be appropriate. 

  • Noise Sensitivity:
    • Move employee to a more private area or away from high traffic areas
    • Move employee away from office machinery, equipment, and other background noises
    • Provide an environmental sound machine to help mask distracting sounds
    • Provide noise canceling headsets
    • Provide sound absorption panels
    • Encourage coworkers to keep non-work related conversation to a minimum
    • Allow telework

Situation: A new employee who was having great difficulty with the level of noise in a busy customer service location asked if she could work from home.

Solution: The employee’s essential functions consisted of answering phones and assisting customers who came into the busy office. The employer agreed to try accommodations that would limit the employee’s time at the busy customer service counter and allow her to answer phones and do paperwork from a location in the back of the office away from the public and the noise, but denied the request for telework due to the nature of her tasks.

Sensitivity to Touch:

  • Modify a uniform or dress code policy

Situation: A new employee was hired by an established consulting firm that required female employees to wear skirts and stockings when meeting with clients. There was no way this employee could tolerate stockings or pantyhose.

Solution: A JAN consultant recommended the employee talk with her employer about her disability and discuss solutions. A modification in the dress code policy as an accommodation would allow the employee to look every bit as professional while wearing a pant suit when meeting with clients.   

Temperature Sensitivity:

  • Reduce/Increase work-site temperature
  • Use cool vest or other cooling clothing / heated gloves or other heated clothing
  • Use fan/air-conditioner at the workstation / allow workstation heaters
  • Allow flexible scheduling and flexible use of leave time
  • Allow work from home during hot/cold weather

Situation: An employee who worked in a maintenance garage in a southern state absolutely could not tolerate heat. Several months out of the year were unbearable and his attendance suffered.

Solution: The employer installed a swamp cooler that dropped the garage temperature significantly. The employee was able to tolerate the environment and attendance was no longer an issue.

Do you have difficulties with sensory processing resulting in complications or frustrations on the job? Consider the information provided above to see if workplace accommodations might be an answer for you in your situation. Contact JAN for a personal consultation if we can be of assistance.