5 Tips for Managing Sensory Needs in Healthcare Settings

Submitted by Guest Blogger on Mon, 02/01/2021
Healthcare settings such as hospitals and doctor’s offices can be overwhelming environments for individuals with sensory challenges. Here are five tips to help make your next trip easier!

Going to the doctor or hospital can be a stressful experience for everyone, especially in unplanned or emergency situations. The bright lights, constant noises and strong smells in hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care and doctor’s offices can be overwhelming for individuals with sensory challenges. This can cause sensory overload, increasing stress and/or anxiety for individuals with these disabilities and making it more difficult to communicate with their providers and engage in the healthcare process. While everyone’s specific sensory needs are different, below are five tips that can help manage the sensory aspects of healthcare environments.

Bring Sensory Management Tools to Your Appointments

If you already have things like headphones, sunglasses or fidgets that can be effective for managing your sensory needs, bring them! Reducing the bright lights, loud or constant sounds, or both can not only decrease stress levels, but also help ensure that your focus can be on important communications with your doctor or provider. If you are a sensory seeker, having an easy to use fidget available can do the same.

Don’t have these things yet, but think you might benefit from them? Easy and affordable options include sunglasses from a dollar store, pipe cleaners that can be bent and twisted for a fidget, and noise dampening headphones from hardware stores.

Use Mindfulness Strategies

Mindfulness strategies can help to calm and refocus our sensory systems when they are overwhelmed. There are lots of different types of mindfulness activities and different activities may work best for different people. Examples can include mindful coloring, breathing exercises, yoga or meditation, positive affirmations, and music. Practicing mindfulness activities at home can help to find what works best for you and make sure you are comfortable doing the activity, making it easier to engage in mindfulness when feeling stressed or anxious.

An easy mindfulness activity that can be done anywhere, including at a doctor’s appointment, is called the 5-4-3-2-1 senses activity. This activity can be easily adapted if needed for individuals with sensory based disabilities as well. Try to focus on finding or noticing the following things:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch or feel
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

Have a Break Request Code Word or Action

For longer appointments or procedures, you may need a break to help prevent sensory overload, use the items you brought from home, or engage in a mindfulness activity. It can be hard to ask for a break in the moment when we are feeling particularly stressed or overwhelmed, so come up with a code word or action that you can use to signal to your doctor or provider that you need a break. Discuss your code word or signal with your doctor at the start of the appointment so they know what it means. There are some procedures that cannot be stopped in the middle, or where you might have to stay still, so you may need to change your code word or signal or wait a bit for a break.

For Inpatient Stays – Consult with an Occupational Therapist

If you will be at the hospital for more than a quick procedure, ask if you can have a referral or consultation with an Occupational Therapist. Occupational Therapists have training on sensory processing difficulties and may have additional tools or strategies that can help you during your stay. They can help to assess your specific needs and what can be done during your stay to help manage your sensory needs. 

For Outpatient Appointments – Request Reasonable Accommodations

For scheduled appointments or procedures, you can ask for reasonable accommodations for your appointment to help manage your sensory needs. If possible, talk to your provider or the manager of the clinic before your appointment to request and discuss potential accommodations. Some examples of potential accommodations may include:

  • A longer appointment time to allow for breaks, extra time to ask questions, or ensure that you are able to communicate with your doctor or provider as needed
  • Scheduling your appointment at the beginning or end of the day when the office might be less crowded and overwhelming
  • Having the lights in the room off and only using natural light from windows
  • Turning off noisy equipment if it is not needed for your appointment and is able to be turned off
  • Having the doctor or provider explain or demonstrate the steps of the procedure as they are about to occur, especially things that involve touch so that you are prepared

Every office and appointment can be different, so the types of accommodations may change between appointments, at different offices, or with different doctors/providers. You can ask that accommodations that work for you are added to your medical record in case you need to request them again in the future.


THIS BLOG POST WAS WRITTEN BY Region 8 Advisor Holly Darnell. Holly IS THE ADA Coordinator at UCHealth Medical Group.

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The Rocky Mountain ADA Center's blog, Access Granted, tackles ADA issues through unique and diverse perspectives. Articles are written by staff of RMADAC and a variety of special guest authors. Some may be educational, others might be personal or thought-provoking. Either way, Access Granted will bring you the ADA of today!

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