- Between 5-17% of the general population process sensory information differently meaning that everyday experiences like visiting the supermarket can be overwhelming.
- Sensory processing differences are more common in autistic people. Autism is a developmental condition associated with differences in the way people communicate and experience the world. Approximately 1-2% of people worldwide are autistic, and studies suggest that up to 90% of autistic people have sensory processing differences.
- However, a 2021 survey by Sensory Integration Education found that less than 10% of the general public had a strong knowledge of the concepts sensory integration or sensory processing and 36% had never heard of either term.
Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Reading – in collaboration with awareness-raising organisation Sensory Spectacle – are hosting an innovative event called Sensory Supermarket as part of the Sensory Street research project. This free event is an opportunity for retailers and other public-facing businesses to explore the adaptations that they could make to support autistic customers in their spaces. It will take place 19-20 August at PEARL in Dagenham.
Dr Cathy Manning, Principal Investigator who conducted the research at the Universities of Oxford and Reading, said, “This event was designed in collaboration with autistic people, who told us that supermarkets present the biggest sensory challenges to them. It’s the first event of its kind and aims to show how spaces like these could be transformed to be more accessible.”
Autistic people describe visiting new environments as a complex “spider web” of sensory experiences. One participant said, “I want to say to people, it’s about actually looking at all those little things that build up.”
Researchers from the Sensory Street project found six common themes that can make public spaces more challenging for people with sensory processing difficulties, from a lack of staff awareness to an unpredictable space. As a result, people with sensory processing difficulties – around 5-17% of the population – may reduce the time they spend in these spaces or avoid them completely.
Sensory Supermarket will help business leaders and staff understand what they can do differently, through an immersive supermarket experience, video presentations, poster boards, talks and more. As Oxford University research assistant Catherine Woolley explains: "We want to show how making small changes could help make public spaces more accessible for everyone.”
Event attendees will be equipped with practical tips and ideas and will have the opportunity to speak to members of the research team. In addition to raising awareness about sensory processing differences in autistic people, Sensory Street hope to inspire businesses, individuals, and urban development to create more accessible spaces in the future.