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Sensory Overload in Public Transportation

Imagine yourself entering a vehicle where every sound is amplified through huge speakers, lights are bugging your eyes, people are coming near to you leaving no personal space, heat is getting up , and the seat covers are are itchy. You don’t have the ability to control your surroundings, and you must pay attention to everything at the same time. You are forced to stay there until you are completely drained. Sounds exhausting, right? This is one example of how sensory overload may feel to an individual on public transportation. 

Using public transportation can be a very draining and stressful experience for some, possibly making them avoid it completely. One of the reasons can be sensory overload. This means a phenomenon where overstimulation of senses exceeds the usual or preferred level for the brain to process, leading to consequences such as panic, stress, anxiety, withdrawal, and impaired concentration (Malhotra, 1984; Scheydt et al., 2017). Sensory overload may be caused by the difficulties to filter irrelevant environmental stimuli and the symptoms may amplify if the person is feeling unwell or is in a new environment (Kong & Maha, 2019). 

The triggers to cause sensory overload can be, for example, noise, lights, overcrowding, temperature, and visual input. All these triggers are presented in public transportation. This makes it an interesting approach to look at the phenomenon and how it affects one using different transportation services. If the mentioned consequences appear while using public transportation or if it prevents using it, it can be said that public transportation might not be accessible for people experiencing sensory overload. The outcome is also a health issue, which should be acknowledged.

Here is what I have gathered so far from the previous research and discussions with researchers:

  • Sensory overload seems to be a common phenomenon experienced by large groups. However, while being widely described phenomenon, it does not have specific theoretical background or description and not much research
  • Sensory overload is linked to several diagnoses (ADHD, autism, and many others). In addition, it is well known that people without any diagnoses experience it as well
  • The research on sensory overload is centered around diagnoses and medicalized points of view, and most of the literature focuses on autistic spectrum experiences
  • There is no research that focuses on sensory overload in public transportation
  • Sensory accessibility seems to be usually forgotten or overlooked when discussing on accessibility. For example, the European accessibility act only mentions sensory impairments and not sensory overload or different sensory experiences at all

As we can see, there is a clear research gap with sensory overload as a phenomenon and especially in public transport. As an example, of how broad the phenomenon is, in Finland people with ADHD are 3-7 % (Duodecim, 2019), and people on the autistic spectrum are estimated to be between 55000-65000 (Autismiliitto, 2022) out of Finnish population. Sensory overload is common for the mentioned groups, even though not all necessarily experience it and diagnoses may overlap. However, these are only a few diagnostic examples out of many, leaving out completely people without any. It can be safely said, that the phenomenon considers a large group.

The research has mainly, if not only, approached sensory overload through diagnosis, while admitting at the same time, that people without any diagnosis experience sensory overload as well. Why not watch the phenomenon through common factors rather than through diagnosis? Especially, since it does not even cover the whole group. My project and thesis aims to fill this research gap and adress this accessibility point of view.

Solutions and the Project

My project and the thesis will focus on sensory overload in public transportation in Finland and will evaluate how different technological solutions may support traveling with it. Part of the project is to design application features that could help manage sensory overload in public transportation. The main goal is not to build an actual mobile application, but rather to test out ideas that can be embedded later into already existing platforms. Many different applications used at the same time might not be accessible, which will be one of the themes. Furthermore, the goal is also to create and evaluate a sustainable design process, which takes into consideration sensory overload as well as other sustainability aspects. An important part of this approach is to include people who experience sensory overload from the beginning to the end. Designing for special needs usually increases the quality for others as well, which makes it a fruitful approach.

Self-determination of experienced sensory overload is the most important thing for the thesis and the project. People’s needs vary throughout their lives, which makes accessibility topics valid for most people, of which sensory overload is part. The politics and international cooperation are shifting to the view that everyone should have the same rights to participate and live in society. (Persson et al., 2015). However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to approach this goal. This thesis and project try to cover the research gap considering the selected topic. In the near future, people need to shift to using more sustainable transportation, public transportation being one of the possible solutions. If we want to make public transportation more appealing and accessible for all, consideration of many different aspects is needed, sensory overload being one of them. 


Autismiliitto. (2022, May 4). Perustietoa autismista.

Duodecim. (2019, April 4). ADHD (aktiivisuuden ja tarkkaavuuden häiriö).

Kong, & Maha, J. (2019). Sensory processing: shifting our mindset to improve care delivery. Pediatric Research, 86(4), 544–545.

Malhotra. (1984). Information and sensory overload. Information and sensory overload in psychology and marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 1(3-4), 9–21.

Persson, H., Åhman, H., Yngling, A. A., & Gulliksen, J. (2015). Universal design, inclusive design, accessible design, design for all: different concepts—one goal? On the concept of accessibility—historical, methodological and philosophical aspects. Universal Access in the Information Society, 14(4), 505–526.

Scheydt, S., Müller Staub, M., Frauenfelder, F., Nielsen, G.H., Behrens, J. and Needham, I. (2017), Sensory overload: A concept analysis. Int J Mental Health Nurs, 26: 110-120.

(The experience from the beginning is my own)