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“It Is a Big Spider Web of Things”: Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults in Public Spaces

MacLennan, Keren ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3148-3450, Woolley, Catherine, @21andsensory, Emily, Heasman, Brett ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3621-3863, Starns, Jess, George, Becky and Manning, Catherine (2022) “It Is a Big Spider Web of Things”: Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults in Public Spaces. Autism in Adulthood, 5 (4). pp. 411-422.

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Background:Sensory processing differences are commonly experienced by autistic individuals, and somesensory experiences can greatly impact the mental health and quality of life of individuals. Previous researchsuggests that adapting the sensory nature of environments may improve individual experiences and engagementwith these spaces. However, knowledge about which public places are particularly disabling is limited, espe-cially from the perspective of autistic individuals. Little is also known about what in the sensory environmentmakes them particularly disabling.Methods:In this participatory research study, we investigated the sensory experiences of autistic adults inpublic spaces. We used an online focus group method, recruiting 24 autistic adults across 7 focus groups. Weapplied content analysis, reflexive thematic analysis, and case study analysis.Results:The results of the content analysis showed that supermarkets, eateries (i.e., restaurants, cafe ́s, pubs),highstreets and city/town centers, public transport, health care settings (i.e., doctor’s surgeries and hospitals),and retail shops and shopping centers are experienced to be commonly disabling sensory environments forautistic adults. However, outdoor spaces, retail shops, museums, concert venues/clubs, cinemas/theaters, andstadiums are identified to be commonly less disabling sensory environments. In addition, through reflexivethematic analysis we identified 6 key principles that underlie how disabling or enabling sensory environmentsare: Sensoryscape (sensory environment), Space, Predictability, Understanding, Adjustments, and Recovery.We represented these principles as a web to emphasize the interconnected, dimensional spectrum of thedifferent themes. Lastly, we used case study analysis to evidence these principles in the commonly disablingsensory environments for richer detail and context and to provide credibility for the principles.Conclusions:Our findings have important implications for businesses, policy, and built environment designersto reduce the sensory impact of public places to make them more enabling for autistic people. By making publicspaces more enabling, we may be able to improve quality of life for autistic individuals.Keywords:sensory processing, environments, qualitative analysis, accessibility, autism, neurodiversity

Item Type: Article
Status: Published
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2022.0024
School/Department: School of Education, Language and Psychology
URI: https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/6849

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