Patterns for Success: Office Lighting3 min read

Our hero slinks down the cold basement hallway, gripped with terror at the thought of what might be around the next corner. The hidden horrors could be anywhere, but his senses are overwhelmed by the state of disrepair of the place. Old fluorescent light bulbs are flickering hatefully, as if to taunt him and wish him ill. The hum of the ballasts are omnipresent, dulling any hopes that he’ll discern anything of the environment ahead by its sounds.

Does this sound like the scene of a horror movie? Sadly, for many people on the autism spectrum, this is a part of every day normal life. The sensory integration differences in the autistic brain can sometimes manifest as sensory hypersensitivity. What appears to be a non-descript fluorescent light fixture in the office can, to some autistic people, be experienced like the dreadful lighting we’re accustomed to seeing in horror movies. The 120Hz cycle of the bulbs may be perceptible, and not processed as part of the background to be ignored. Prolonged exposure may result in very real physiological symptoms such as headache, migraines, and nausea. As fluorescent tubes are usually cycling at 120Hz, twice the speed of the input cycle of 60Hz, they change colors rapidly in a way that cannot be consciously perceived by most people. This flicker is usually perceived in peripheral vision rather than through direct observation. Additionally, the audible hum of the fluorescent ballast may also be perceived as foreground sound.

But what can I do about it?

Whether you are the person that experiences these problems, or if you have responsibilities to provide a safe working environment for people who do experience these problems, there are practical things that you can do.

  • Take care to angle your computer display such that it doesn’t directly reflect the overhead lighting.
  • Turn off the lights directly above your work area.
  • See if your supervisor will have the bulbs in your area removed for you, if you can’t shut them off directly.
  • See if your supervisor will allow you work in an area no predominantly lit by fluorescent lighting. Note that many recessed lighting fixtures now are using compact fluorescent bulbs, which have all the same problems as the tube type fixtures.
  • Consider converting fluorescent fixtures to LED, which are naturally flicker-free and produce no audible buzz. Not only will this have an immediate benefit to people with sensory hypersensitivities, these fixtures will pay for themselves over time in conserved energy costs as they use only a fraction of the electricity required by fluorescent fixtures, while at the same time producing a higher quality of clean white light.
  • If the option is available, consider whether working remotely (from home or a quiet coffee shop, for example) might be more conducive to your health. This may only be available on a part-time basis, since many companies find value in having you available and approachable in their office space.

This is one of the bigger problems for many autistic professionals to find success in office environments. Let your supervisor and HR department know if this is something that you struggle with, and ask for their help in either adjusting your environment or exploring other reasonable accommodations to help you create the safe working environment that you deserve.  May success be yours!