How to Handle Sensory Overload at Work

Featured Image by Gustavo Fring, Pexels

Working in any environment can get very stressful after a while but for people on the autism spectrum that can be doubled with all the sensory issues going on. In this guide by Exceptional Individuals, we will be going over what is sensory overload and how it can affect neurodivergent people, from what to do during and tips on what works.

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload can feel different from person to person but it is mainly characterised by sensations akin to anxiety attacks, indeed the feelings are similar. It can feel like your whole body is shutting down and there is nothing you can do about it. Your emotions go haywire and you have no control over them. A person experiencing sensory overload may come off as erratic or completely still. It is the process of many emotions at once triggered by things around the environment. Sensory overload is a harsh feeling therefore some can totally ‘shut down’ in response to it. To help someone who has sensory overload you need to first understand why it happens to them in the first place. Do you see them rocking back and forth or just staring at their computer, fully in silence? That is sensory overload and it is worse with autistic people.

What can cause sensory overload at work?

Depending on the work environment and where the person is located, a case of sensory overload can happen anywhere at any time. Autistic people have heightened senses and that can cause some distress leading to sensory overload. Examples include the lights above their desks being too bright, not allowing them to see the work on their computer; the chairs not being a certain material as some autistic people have trouble with textures so that can lead to sensory overload. It is not just outside factors such as these that can cause sensory overload though; a sense of helplessness can cause it as well, for example a crucial piece of work being mistakenly deleted can cause extreme anxiety and the difficulty processing that can cause sensory overload. Take these factors in while in a work environment.

How can you handle sensory overload at work?

This guide will show you how to manage sensory overload at work while managing the triggers and the spaces that you can go to calm down the person being overloaded.

Recognise your triggers

A big way to handle sensory overload at work is to first recognise what causes it. It can be different things to different people, so no one cause is the same. A common cause however is loud noises, office environments in particular can be very noisy with no end in sight. To combat this however is to know when a noisy event is going to go on in advance and get some soothing materials out to combat the feelings of sensory overload and to drive it away all together. Knowing what will trigger you beforehand will save a lot of heartache in the long run. What can help is careful planning around what will happen that day and keen sight.

Ask for adjustments to be made to your working environment

A good thing is to ask the line manager to make some reasonable adjustments to the workspace so it can be comfortable for the person and therefore lower the risk of the person experiencing sensory overload. This should be all covered in the workplace needs assessments. For example, if their work chair is a texture they do not like, the employer can make an adjustment to replace the chair for something which is to their liking. A chair is something that will be used all day, so that would be a better adjustment to make. Other adjustments include dimming the lights to reduce light sensitivity that can lead to sensory overload. Adjustments should always be accommodated as it counts as discrimination to refuse.

Use noise-cancelling headphones

Image by Christina Morillo, Pexels

To combat noisiness at work, either a chatty desk mate or a surprise meeting placed right near where they are working, a good idea is to invest in a pair of noise cancelling headphones. Autistic people often carry these headphones with them everywhere because loud noise is often a huge trigger in sensory overload. A good place to look for noise cancelling headphones is online, search for sites that have a good reputation for selling products geared towards neurodivergent people. A good and sturdy pair of headphones that do the job well should be a good fit.

Take regular breaks

The workplace needs assessment that has been given should say that taking regular breaks should be on the agenda for neurodiverse employees. The line manager in charge should sit with the autistic person and plan out their breaks in advance. Breaks should never be so frequent they mess up with the work schedule; just regular enough to avoid burnout. Burnout is also a key factor that can cause sensory overload so make sure to step away from the desk and retreat to a quiet room that should be allocated or created using the workplace needs assessment written out when first employed by the company.

Try breathing and relaxation techniques

Looking up breathing techniques online can really help in calming down from a sensory overload attack. An easy one to do is to cross your legs, close your eyes and just breathe slowly. Continue to do that for around five minutes until you see yourself calming down from the effects of sensory overload. A host of relaxation techniques can work and they all require just stepping away from the desk and going into the designated safe and quiet room. Another helpful relaxation technique is bringing something comfortable from home and playing with that for a bit until the effects subside. Fidget toys can also work in this way, as can slime based products but remember to clean up after.

Ask for support when you need it

In the workplace needs assessment plan that was given, your line manager will plan out who you can go to whenever you need support. Usually, it is the line managers job to provide support but they have their own job to get on with as well. That is why most workplaces have the ‘buddy’ system in place for when workmates need support. That could be someone next to you or someone else in a different department who is trained in dealing with matters such as sensory overload. In fact, each workplace should have someone who is trained in mental health as part of the team for people to go to when they are overwhelmed with work life.

Make the most of flexible working options

Since Covid, it has become more commonplace in work environments to honour flexible working hours for its employees. As part of the workplace needs assessment that you were given, it should be on there to discuss with your line manager and their manager how many hours a week you can work. When there is a day you will know that you will get sensory overload, ask your line manager if you can work from home or a safe remote location to reduce the chances of sensory overload. An ideal is a balance between working in an office and from home but some even work from home all the time.


There you have it, a guide on how to handle sensory overload at work. If you think you might have autism, be sure to do the Exceptional Individuals autism test to see if you qualify for a workplace needs assessment. This guide is here to help handle and calm sensory overload.

Useful Links:

Workplace Needs Assessments
Autism Test

Blog Author

Solmaz Farad