Too much, too bright, too loud

How Halifax is trying to reduce obstacles for people with sensory sensitivities

It takes some effort to navigate life in any city, even a small one like Halifax. You’ve got to learn the bus routes, when to expect rush-hour traffic, where the best shawarma is, and so on.

But there are other less-noticeable hurdles. For some, navigating the streets isn’t enough; they have to consider how loud the neighbourhood will be. The best shawarma place in town might use florescent lights, making it impossible for them to dine there.

This is the daily reality for people living with sensory processing disorders.

“We know that sensory processing disorder is very common in people living on the autism spectrum,” says Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia. “There are many individuals living on the autism spectrum that do have varying sensitivities to things like lights, sounds, or smells in their environment, which actually can make social interaction and inclusion in the community definitely more challenging.”

Doctors diagnosed Allistair Fraser with Asperger’s syndrome when he was five; he’s learned to anticipate his sensory sensitivities.

“I have to know what my limits are,” says the 37-year-old. “You get on a bus, the engine’s loud, you’ve got people in the back shouting. Or car stereos. I can only imagine how loud it is inside the car, because you can hear them blasting the bass. Sometimes I wonder where all the quiet has gone.”

For people with sensory processing disorders, it goes beyond annoyance. Too much stimulation can lead to physiological distress that makes it hard to live in normal society.

“In a grocery store for example, where there are announcements all the time, and lots of loud sounds and bright lights, it becomes what we call a ‘sensory cocktail,’ which can lead to overload,” says Carroll. Watchers often mistake these overloads for bad behaviour and temper tantrums.

“Think of it like a pop can,” Carroll explains. “It’s often called ‘masking,’ where they can kind of manage…you’re just holding it together. But throughout that day, there’s a lot of what we call ‘pop-can moments’ where people are kind of shaking the pop can…you just can’t filter it anymore, and the pop can opens. This is very real and very intense for people experiencing sensory overload.”

For parents, that means constant vigilance.

Sarah Yarr’s eight-year-old daughter Amata is on the Autism spectrum, meaning she’s been diagnosed with one among range of diagnosable conditions that fit under the autism banner. “When I buy her clothes, I look for tagless things. When I pick up food, we always have an alternate dish planned in case she doesn’t like it…It’s pretty instinctive to just plan ahead for what she’s going to need.”

Amata finds loud noises and strong smells particularly distracting.

“Usually, I have my imagination flowing easily, but when a bad smell is around: pop! There it goes,” she explains. “Unless it’s my own voice, super high-volume screams are quite annoying.”

Yarr, Amata, and her younger sister were enjoying a quiet lounge at Hal-Con when Halifax Magazine spoke to them.

“It’s mostly quiet around here,” says Amata. “Outside this room, it’s pretty crowded and noisy. Things may start to get overwhelming if I don’t take any quick trip to a room like this. Probably for other people with autism, too.”

The room is one of many programs that Autism Nova Scotia is starting with community partners to make the city more accommodating to people with special sensory needs, autistic or not.

“One of the things that Autism Nova Scotia has been working really hard on is ensuring that the communities in which we live have a greater understanding and acceptance around these sensory sensitivities,” says Carroll.

Neptune Theatre had its first sensory-friendly staging of Cinderella, with the house lights dimmed, and applause replaced with snapping fingers. Fin: The Atlantic International Film Festival also holds relaxed movie screenings.

“This is probably a little quieter, and they leave the lights on,” says Fraser, while eagerly waiting to take in one of those screenings. “It might mean the movie is a bit more enjoyable, and it might mean you get more out of the movie.”

In HRM, there are autism-friendly Dungeons & Dragons clubs now, relaxed swims, and even quiet visits with Santa. Halifax Public Libraries now offers early opening hours for people with sensory sensitivities. The trend is growing. Sobeys offers “sensory-friendly” shopping hours and local museums are now offering quiet hours.

“We had an adult who is 45, who has never had a library card in her life, because she could never walk into a library because of the stimulation,” says Carroll. “She was able, for the first time, to go in and get a library card.”

Carroll has been with Autism Nova Scotia for 11 years. She’s seen the general understanding and acceptance of people on the spectrum grow. Halifax is even starting to see it in its infrastructure, such as with the pedestrian-friendly Argyle Street renovation; less vehicle traffic has the added benefit of less noise, fewer sensory distractions.

Carroll wants to see our city go even farther in this direction.
“Laval in Quebec has designated themselves as an autism-friendly city,” says Carroll. “There’s also been a city in Newfoundland [Channel-Port Aux Basques] who has declared themselves that as well. What would it take for Halifax to be an autism-friendly city? I like to think that we’re on our way.”

Fraser recalls something his mother used to tell him.

“Savour the small victories,” he says. “But there’s a lot more
to do.”

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