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  • Writer's pictureDr. Erica Garcia Thomas

Empowering and Accommodating Employees with Sensory Processing Disorder: A Guide for Organizations

Updated: Mar 21

Erica Garcia Thomas, DBA


In today's hyper-competitive business landscape, companies seek ways to gain an edge, meet tight deadlines, and promote healthy teamwork. Leaders must recognize and leverage their teams' diverse strengths, skills, and perspectives to achieve these goals. Failure to do so risks falling behind the competition and missing out on valuable opportunities for growth and success.  

 

One often overlooked but vital aspect of employee diversity and "invisible disabilities" is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a neurological condition affecting how people process, perceive, and respond to sensory stimuli experiences.


A SPD Perspective

As someone who has had SPD from a young age, 🙋🏻‍♀️ I can attest to the profound impact of the environment on one's ability to function effectively. My nervous system is hyper-sensitive to what is around me, and at times, I experience uncontrollable sensory overwhelm that dramatically impacts my everyday life, including my work.

 

I sometimes need help navigating specific environments, particularly at concerts, large company gatherings, and auditorium conferences. It's usually not the voices that trigger me but rather the amplification, flashy lights, uncomfortable seating, lack of space, competing sounds, or unpredictable surroundings. That said, I promise I still go out in public!


Still, as you can imagine, I find solace in attending online events instead of in person, where I have more control over my environment and am better able to focus on the message and community aspect of the experience. This enables me to absorb more meaning and learn through a controlled environment. 

 



Are employers discussing providing flexibility, resources, and empowerment for people like me who depend highly on controlling their surroundings? The answer should be a resounding yes. Providing accommodations and flexibility is not just a matter of being compassionate; it's also a smart business move.


When leaders appropriately accommodate individuals with SPD, the result is greater trust, psychological safety, and productivity. SPD team members know they can thrive and contribute more effectively to the workplace when accommodated. The beauty of disability is that it allows us to utilize our superpowers and unique perspectives gained from overcoming challenges. -Dr. Erica Garcia Thomas

This article delves into the importance of creating a flexible and accommodating work environment for employees with SPD and offers ideas for improvement. We hope that by providing tips for managers and leaders, we can better address SPD at work and normalize the need to accommodate it.


Here is a summary of the main points and areas you can address in your workplace to better accommodate people with SPD.  

  • Engage in education 

  • Open two-way communication channels 

  • Offer flexible work schedules (if possible) 

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses 

  • Reduce noise and distractions

  • Provide sensory-friendly ergonomic workspaces 

  • Choose sensory-friendly materials 

  • Create clarity through excellent and empathetic leadership

  • Encourage sensory breaks for everyone

  • Consider remote work


Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder and Neurodiversity 

Sensory Processing Disorder encompasses various sensitivities and preferences, such as sensitivities to light, sound, touch, taste, or smell, and experiences these challenges differently along a spectrum. Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes and celebrates the natural variations in human neurological traits. It acknowledges that differences in neurology, such as autism, SPD, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions, are not deficits but valuable and unique forms of cognitive functioning.  

 

The neurodiversity paradigm promotes the idea that these differences are valuable and should be respected, accommodated, and included in society, including the workplace. Accommodating neurodiverse employees is essential for creating an inclusive and equitable work environment.


It is important to note that neurodiversity is a spectrum; chances are your company employs many people impacted by these challenges, and you may not even know it. Complications in the workplace for neurodiverse employees vary significantly from one person to another, making it imperative for workplaces to curate flexible, empowering, and accommodating environments and open dialogue for seen and unseen conditions. 

 

SPD in the Workplace 

While there is a wealth of easily accessible information on caring for children with SPD, there is a noticeable gap in business thought leadership regarding organizational best practices for adults with SPD. I am a business subject-matter expert, not a medical doctor, so my view is limited to organizational environments. More research is needed to address the disorder from employer, manager, and employee perspectives and create safe spaces for resources, support, and care.


As leaders, it is our role to research, support, and accommodate every employee in the best way possible so the conditions are right for them to flourish and unlock optimal performance and job satisfaction.  -Dr. Erica Garcia Thomas

 

From an organizational perspective, employers can take the initiative to make accommodations for everyone across the organization, allowing those with sensory issues to self-identify and opt into the work environments that work best for them. Employees' voices are essential in shaping office design, norms, and collaboration strategies. Employees should be invited to weigh in on their work location, lighting, technology, and other sensory stimuli. 


Accommodating employees with SPD shows empathy and enhances their overall well-being and productivity. According to the Boston Consulting Group, embracing diversity, empathetic leadership, and accommodating employees through growing psychological safety is a win-win situation for employees and organizations.


Here are ten ways to address SPD by accommodating employees:  

Engage in Education. First, educate the entire company about SPD and other disabilities (seen and unseen). Awareness is the first step towards understanding and supporting employees with these disabilities (superpowers). Host workshops or provide informational digital learning to help employees recognize the challenges faced by their colleagues with SPD.  

 

Open 2-way Communication Channels. Encourage open and transparent communication between employees and their supervisors. Invite neurodiverse employees to express their needs and concerns without fear of retaliation and, as a leader, follow through to create more psychological safety. Create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their sensory, communication, social, and environmental conditions. This fosters a culture of empathy and understanding. 


Sometimes, micro-shifts in teamwork practices can make a real difference in productivity, creativity, and organizational culture. 

 

Offer Flexible Work Schedules (if possible). Allow employees to have flexibility in their work hours and breaks. SPD can sometimes make it challenging to maintain focus for extended periods, and offering flexible schedules can help employees manage their energy and sensory needs more effectively.


Additionally, socializing while working can be challenging, so providing employees the freedom to manage their social environments (including virtual chat) is essential. I do my best work late at night, alone. It’s when I’m most creative, focused, and uninterrupted. In contrast, many people I work with feel most productive in the early morning.  

 

Identify Strengths and Weaknesses. While some aspects of work may feel challenging for an individual, the flip side is that it can be an advantage for the team. Empower all employees to uncover their strengths so the leaders in your company can invite their superpowers to join them in the work.  

 

My productivity is off the chart with sensory accommodations and flexibility. I get things done, build relationships, act with integrity, and accommodate others well. For me, work is fun when I’m on the right team and in the right environment.  - Dr. Erica Garcia Thomas

 

Reduce Noise. Create quiet zones and provide noise-canceling headphones for all employees, especially those sensitive to sound. Reducing noise distractions can significantly improve concentration and productivity for individuals with SPD.  

 

Provide Sensory-Friendly Ergonomic Workspaces. Adjust the physical workspace to accommodate sensory preferences. This might include providing adjustable lighting, soft ergonomic chairs, and workstations that allow employees to control their environment, focus on their work, and build relationships with coworkers. Consider providing sensory-friendly materials, such as comfortable seating, fidget tools, or textured surfaces, to help employees with SPD stay relaxed and focused during their workday. 

 

I utilize soft seat covers, a footrest, and mousepad cushions on my desk for my remote work environment. Additionally, I rock in my rocking chair each morning as I process my to-do list and complete my morning pages, where I download my thoughts onto a white piece of paper. The rocking motion soothes me and gets me into a productive space to get stuff done. - Dr. Erica

 

Choose Sensory-Friendly Materials. For employees with uniforms, we have to rethink our materials and have our team members weigh in on their sensory preferences. Soft, breathable fabrics are crucial.  

 

I vividly recall throwing tantrums when I had to wear tights to church as a five-year-old. It wasn't the church experience but the discomfort of the stockings against my skin that bothered me. In the 80s, tagless and seamless clothing wasn't readily available, which made life challenging. As a teenager, having the freedom to choose my clothing was a gift, allowing me to select textures that worked best for me, reducing distractions and discomfort. The same applies to my work attire. It must be comfortable, breathable, and soft. - Dr. Erica

 

Create Clarity. Provide written or visual guidelines for employees with difficulty processing verbal instructions and audio instructions for those who struggle with instructions in writing. Adapt standards company-wide for accessibility, communication, and a common language to embed acceptance and inclusion into company culture. A leader’s job is to ensure everyone can easily absorb instructions and that expectations are clear and concrete. 

 

I learn best by writing what people say and creating intricate matrixes and notes to help myself best process concepts (usually, only I understand the notes). Asking me for feedback on the spot in a meeting without presenting a clear objective or data is challenging. Additionally, it is not helpful in meetings when I’m told to put down my pen, "just listen,” and not take notes. I also hold fidget magnets when I’m not writing my notes, which helps me focus on what is happening in the meeting. If too many directives are given too fast or too many questions are asked in a short period, I will not track each one until I write it. Multiple meetings in a row can be tough and energy-draining, so I need to space them out. - Dr. Erica

 

Encourage Sensory Breaks. Recognize that all employees, especially those with SPD, may need sensory breaks. Encourage breaks to allow them to reset and manage sensory overload. Providing a dedicated space for these breaks can be beneficial. In general, brain breaks for employees are healthy and should be encouraged across organizations. 


As a leader, you can regularly model taking brain breaks during your workday, and your teams will feel more free to do the same.  

 

Consider Remote Work. The pandemic brought about a seismic shift in our work, with a massive transition to remote work. Post-pandemic, companies can continue to offer remote work options for employees who find their home environment more accommodating. Remote work provides greater control over one's sensory surroundings, allowing for improved focus and comfort. If work cannot be done remotely, consider creating opportunities for employee feedback about ideas to increase flexibility and accommodation. Some teams find that hybrid work or four-day work weeks are ideal. Others plan for regular vacations to be in nature or rest their brain for extended periods after busy work weeks.  

 

When you have SPD, your brain and body are quickly exhausted simply by engaging with the people, environments, and technology around you. For someone like me, who has always struggled with in-office workplaces featuring harsh fluorescent lighting, loud conversations, uncomfortable furniture, and constant meetings, the shift to remote work during the pandemic was a breath of fresh air. It allowed my mind to explore newfound creativity and innovation, all because I was accommodated sensory-wise. It also opened the world of extended travel and allowed me to experience brain breaks in nature while producing more than I ever have before.

 

Working from anywhere lets me eat lunch in the sunshine, and when I return to my work, it is more creative, productive, and energized. I understand I am very fortunate to have the support and resources to take these breaks, and I see a stark difference in my output when my work environment is within my control. Part of authentically empowering employees is teaching them to find the outlets and coping skills they need to flourish as wholeheartedly as possible.  - Dr. Erica

 

In a world striving for inclusivity and diversity, companies must recognize and embrace all employees' unique abilities and visible and invisible needs. Creating flexible, accommodating work environments empowers individuals with SPD and benefits the organizational culture.


Accommodating and empowering employees with Sensory Processing Disorder is not just a compassionate gesture; it's a strategic move that can lead to a more diverse, inclusive, and productive workforce.

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