This article is meant to be an introduction to quiet sensory spaces for people who have little to no knowledge on the topic. I decided to write this piece in response to the large number of inquiries I get after requesting a quiet sensory space at alternative mental health conference. I don’t think there is enough general knowledge about accessibility in alternative mental health spaces, due to a lack of knowledge or exposure to individuals with sensory access needs, a lack of resources and time to research sensory access needs, or even subtle (or blatant) ableism and sanism. Despite some absolutely appalling access experiences in alternative mental health spaces, I have also noticed a lot of conference organizers and leaders willing to educate themselves about sensory access needs and improve their event accessibility. I hope this blog can help provide a starting point for those who are willing to learn.
What are Quiet Sensory Spaces?
Quiet sensory spaces provide a low stimulation, calming space where people can spend time away from noise, lights, conversations, and other stimuli. People may refer to these spaces as sensory rooms, sensory retreat rooms, or quiet rooms (though as one advocate pointed out to me, the phrase “quiet room” can be triggering due to its use in some psychiatric facilities as a euphemism for “seclusion room”). Quiet sensory spaces may be located in a separate room, tent (especially at outdoor events), or designated space adjacent to or nearby a public event. These spaces are important at all events, but especially necessary at events that are high-stimulation, high-interaction, over two hours long, or cater to individuals with sensory access needs.
Common features of quiet sensory spaces may include:
- Low light environment (or non-fluorescent, soothing lighting elements)
- Low sound environment, with headphones or single use ear plugs (or calming music with the ability for people to turn it off)
- Low or no scent environment (if you want to provide essential oils, try individually packaged ones rather than a diffuser, so people can choose whether to experience strong smells)
- Stim toys that cover a variety of sensory experiences (think smooth, hard, smushy, soft, clicky, visual, fidgety, etcetera)
- Pillows, blankets, floor cushions, backjacks, meditation or yoga-style seating elements
- Weighted blankets, body socks, or other items that can be used for compression and proprioceptive stimming
- Floor seating options (e.g. yoga mat, floor chairs, floor pillows)
- Puzzles, coloring books, or other quiet games
- Books (especially those by Autistic, neurodivergent, or Mad authors)
- And many other things!
Quiet sensory spaces can help individuals get away from the barrage of sensory input that happens at a public event. Overlapping loud voices, harsh lighting, strong smells, crowded rooms, and the expectation for social interaction can cause sensory overload, a meltdown, or a shutdown in many Autistic or neurodivergent individuals (described by Lydia X. Z. Brown in the image below).
[Image text: Sensory overload: Overstimulation from one or more senses, but typically requires at least two to become an overload. (e.g. a shitton of people shouting different and unintelligible things + being rained on + bright painful flashing lights, happening at the same time or in rapid succession). Can occur without leading to meltdown or shutdown, or can be a precursor to either of those. Basically, when my brain is lagging like 1990’s-era dial-up internet and nothing will make it work. Meltdown: Outward-directed complete loss of self-regulation, basically, when my brain becomes the Samsun Galaxy Note 7. Shutdown: Inward-directed complete loss of self-regulation, basically, when my brain gets the blue screen of death. Facebook Post from Lydia X. Z. Brown]
Sometimes, you may not even be able to tell that someone is experiencing sensory overload, as some neurodivergent people learn to mask in order to appear “normal” in public spaces. However, sensory overload is not something you can just ignore or “overpower through mindfulness;” it’s a painful, exhausting, overwhelming, disorienting, anxiety-inducing, indescribably terrible experience when endured. If you want to learn more about what experiencing sensory overload is like, check out videos like Carly’s Cafe or Sensory Overload (content warning for realistic depictions of sensory overstimulation).
While many people associate quiet sensory spaces solely with the Autistic community, many people can benefit from using the space. Quiet sensory spaces are often utilized by Mad or neurodivergent people, people with sensory processing disorder (SPD), people with social anxiety who need a break from social interactions, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or trauma triggers, people on medications that make them drowsy, or anyone feeling overwhelmed or tired. Quiet sensory spaces give you a break from the hustle and bustle of social spaces, whether it be conferences, classrooms, networking events, or public events of any kind. It’s a great space to decompress, process, pause, or take a much-needed break from overstimulation. It is NOT a space for conference calls, luggage storage, coworking, or other strange things I’ve seen people doing in conference quiet sensory spaces (and yes, these are all things I’ve personally experienced, sadly).
As someone who utilizes quiet sensory spaces, they are an access need that can make or break my ability to fully attend and participate in events. I have left conferences early because of being overstimulated and exhausted, a situation that could have been mitigated with access to a quiet sensory space. I have hung out in bathrooms, stairwells, or my car to have a break from intense public spaces. I have also been made to feel demanding or unreasonable for requesting accommodations. All access needs are valid, and any space that prides itself on being accessible should be prepared to accommodate those with sensory access needs.
Creating a Quiet Sensory Space at Your Event
[Left image of a blue cushioned chair under a blue tent, with lights strung around the entrance of the tent. Image from a news article in Education News Canada on Preston High School. Right image of the sensory room suite at Pittsburgh International Airport. A room full of comfy chairs, calming lights, sensory art pieces, and floor seating cushions.]
First, if someone requests a quiet sensory space at your event, do your research. Don’t expect this person to educate you (hint: you’re probably not the first person who’s asked, and it’s exhausting). It’s fine to clarify expectations and access needs with the individual; just don’t expect them to do your work for you.
Finding a Space: For conferences or multi-room events, a small board room or private lounge area is a perfect place to set-up a quiet sensory space. If you have limited access to space or have a single room event, I’ve seen events utilize a quiet corner or low traffic open seating area. You can also designate a portion of a room as a quiet sensory space using portable room dividers, a tent, or strategically placed seating areas.
Space Logistics: While the list of common features I included at the beginning of this post may seem intimidating, the basic requirements of a quiet sensory space are pretty simple: a quiet, low light space with a place to sit. After providing that basis, you can choose how much to add to the space depending on your budget, available time, and attendee requests. Items like ear plugs and stim toys are very affordable, and objects like meditation cushions or yoga mats can be borrowed from the event staff or community. You can also consider finding a person or organization to sponsor a quiet sensory space at your event.
Communication and Space Use: Make announcements during the event about the location of the space and its proper use. Consider making signs indicating where the quiet sensory space is located, as well as a sign for inside the space reminding attendees to respect the quiet area. There does not need to be someone staffing the space, though it is always good to have an event or ADA coordinator available at the event to answer questions or respond to requests. Finally, feel free to use the space yourself and encourage others to do so. Many people can benefit from utilizing a quiet sensory space at an event, not just people who identify as Autistic, neurodivergent, or having sensory access needs.
When You Can’t Provide a Space: If you are unable to provide a quiet sensory space at your event, announce this in advance and apologize to anyone who requested an accommodation. Honestly, I would rather know in advance that an event cannot provide an accommodation than attend an event expecting a space that isn’t there. Consider announcing “escape routes” (e.g. where the restrooms are, how to get outside quickly to take a breath of fresh air, or just verbally stating that it’s okay to leave the room) and making a commitment to providing a space at your next event.
Finally, when in doubt, hire an Autistic or neurodivergent consultant to answer your questions and help you create an inclusive event space!
Local to Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy can provide consultations on creating sensory-friendly events.
Local to Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh International Airport recently created an amazing sensory suite for travelers, complete with sound-proof quiet spaces, adjustable lighting, and a replica airplane cabin!
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has a great handout on common Autistic access needs.
Thoughts, corrections, additions? Have a question I didn’t answer? Leave a comment below!
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