SFU needs to be more considerate of its neurodiverse community during construction

There are few spaces of refuge left on campus for sensory sensitive folk

It’s impossible to find a quiet space or clear path through campus. Photo: Izaz Zubayer / The Peak

By: Sarah Duncan, SFU Student

Disclaimer: Everyone is different, so there are bound to be different experiences for people with SPD and sensory sensitivities. Don’t take my word as the only one!

I get it, construction is annoying. A survey was even sent out earlier this semester asking for feedback on the construction’s impact on students’ mental health, which at least shows that it’s a problem worth considering. What isn’t being considered as obviously is that SFU, like the rest of the world, is a very neurodiverse place. The constant noise and smells from construction can become a type of hell for those neurodiverse individuals with sensory sensitivities. How can SFU promote mental health awareness if it doesn’t also address the sensory-related consequences of construction?

Sensory sensitivity is a trait associated with roughly 20% of people. It is similar to a neurological condition called sensory processing disorder (SPD), which, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, involves “random and disorganized processing of external stimuli,” causing “great distress, intensity and overstimulation.” Sensory sensitivity is not an isolated condition, and is a huge part of the mental health umbrella. It can affect anyone, such as people on the autism spectrum or people with PTSD. 

So why should SFU care about folks with sensory sensitivities? Well, something as simple as a loud noise can feel a thousand times worse than nails on a chalkboard to people with sensory sensitivity. Additionally, strong scents like perfume or hot tar can be very intense and cause physical reactions like headaches and nausea. That’s part of why many places, including SFU, have banned people from using strong scents in certain areas. YouTube has some good videos that can simulate what it’s like to be sensory sensitive for some perspective. 

Many of the construction projects on campus release intense odours or produce a ton of noise. Heating asphalt roofing tiles releases toxic fumes that can cause skin rashes and respiratory irritation. The rental fence ostensibly separating the fumes from the campus community has no insulating properties. To make matters worse, often the only accessible pathways through campus are plagued with mysterious construction fumes, noise, and dust, making escape impossible. 

Previous sensory-reduced havens such as The Women’s Centre (which even had free ear plugs to hand out) and Out On Campus used to provide a safe space for people with sensory sensitivities. However, these spaces are no longer sensory-reduced as they are next to the current Rotunda construction, where workers are pounding concrete and sawing materials during peak hours on campus. 

The university should do more to keep construction from negatively affecting students and faculty, especially those who may have sensory sensitivities. Even temporarily providing construction-free rooms, or a list of spaces to avoid if the construction environment is proving to be detrimental to community health, can pave the way (metaphorically, no construction here please) to addressing the needs of neurodiversity.

As it stands right now, there are very few dedicated, genuinely quiet spaces on campus for sensory sensitive folk.

Expanding the university is great. However, without the proper considerations from the administration on how to deal with construction itself, the campus can turn into a highly distressing environment. This has a big impact on peoples’ ability to learn and work.