Monthly Archives: March 2016

How to make your event autism-friendly, part 2: sensory needs

Posts in this series:
Part 1: Introduction
[Part 2: Sensory needs]
Part 3: Cognitive needs

Sensory needs tend to be fairly hit-and-miss in how well they are accommodated. People with little or no understanding of autism sometimes have no idea that sensory differences are even relevant. People with slightly more understanding often have good intentions but make changes based on misinformation or simplifications. The fact is, just like in all areas, there is a huge range of variation in sensory needs among autistic people. There’s no simple approach to accommodating us.

Autistic people’s brains are wired differently in ways that mean we experience sensory input differently to non-autistic people. That covers anything from synaesthesia, over- or under-sensitivity, specific sensory ‘intolerances’, perceptual distortions, strong preferences or aversions to using particular senses, and more.

The easiest of these differences to understand (as well as one of the most common) is about comfort with levels of input. Everyone – autistic and otherwise – has a comfortable range of input for each sense. For example, you have a comfortable range of temperature – if you’re much hotter or colder than your comfortable range, then you’ll be unhappy. Similarly, you have a comfortable range of volume – if it’s too loud you might get a headache or feel stressed, if it’s too quiet you might be unsettled or anxious.

Most NT people have a pretty similar range of comfortable input. The point at which a sensation is “too much” or “too little” is mostly the same from one NT person to another. And there’s generally a pretty good correlation from one sense to another, too.

NT input levels

In comparison, autistic people tend to have much more varying levels of comfortable input. That means their comfortable range might be a) much narrower or wider than the NT average, and/or b) offset higher or lower than the NT average. Not only that, but the comfortable range in one sense may be offset  or expanded in one way, and the range in a different sense might be offset completely differently. All in all, autistic sensory experiences are a classic example of how we tend to occupy the extremes of any bell curve you care to mention.

Autistic input levels

But different comfortable ranges are not the only thing that can be different about autistic people’s sensory experience. There are also all kinds of even more specific and individual differences. It’s pretty common to have what I think of as sensory ‘intolerances’ – specific types of sensation which are unbearable, regardless of the intensity of input. For example, a person might react very strongly towards one or more particular textures, tastes, smells, sounds, etc. There’s also the opposite – particular types of input which a person craves or enjoys a great deal. And just as before, you’ve guessed it, there’s no pattern or predictability to these. One person’s intolerance might be another person’s favourite sensation.

Another fairly common experience is to have trouble with processing certain types of sensation. That may apply to just one sense – many people have auditory processing issues that make it hard to understand speech or to distinguish between different sounds. Or it might be with all sensory input – having too much input in any combination of senses can be overloading and make it difficult to process or interpret anything else.

Putting it into practise

Hopefully you now have a general understand of how autistic people’s sensory experiences differ from neurotypical people’s, as well as how much variation there is across individuals. Now it’s time for some advice on how to apply that understanding to making your event accessible for autistic people. I’m going to divide this into some general principles about how to approach things, along with specific examples and advice.

Less is more

We’ve already gathered the fact that autistic people aren’t all over-sensitive or all under-sensitive. But in spite of this, it is important to reduce input as much as possible. In general, it’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable. It’s not nice, but it’s generally possible to handle it. You can find your way to a situation with more input as quickly as possible, or provide input for yourself (who hasn’t tapped their fingers while bored in a waiting room?).

In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous. When a person is overloaded, they may partially or completely lose the ability to process further input. That means they could be disoriented, may become unable to understand speech or other communication, and be incapable of finding their way safely to a more comfortable environment. They might also struggle with internal processes, meaning they could have trouble making decisions, understanding and remembering what’s happening, or expressing communication. That includes being able to recognise and express the fact that they are overloaded and need help. This can be terrifying and dangerous. In comparison, the risk of feeling bored or restless is greatly preferable.

So, the safest way to deal with this is to make it easy for people to avoid input as much as possible. Any area or activity which is necessary or unavoidable, should have its input as low as it feasibly can. That means:

  • Whatever public or central areas the events are taking place in.
  • Any corridors or routes between those places that people will need to take
  • Any facilities people may need to use (toilets, cafés, etc).

Any location that someone attending the event might want or need to be in, in order to fully experience the event.

What is unnecessary input?

  • Sounds like radio, music, or audio announcements.
  • Noisy tools, machines, or activities.
  • Crowds or people talking.
  • Videos, moving or flashing lights.
  • Attention-grabbing images, objects, and displays.

At the event I went to that prompted this series of posts, the corridors of the venue were full of ‘things’. There were stalls and displays with people offering leaflets or selling things, as well as benches and tables dotted around where people would sit and socialise. This made it impossible for me to move from one part of the event to another, without being bombarded with input and overloaded.

Even the entrance of the venue was overloading. Right inside the front doors at registration time, there were stalls along the walls and a huge crowded queue filling up the space. You couldn’t even get in to the event without a sensory assault. I can’t bear to think about how many people might have arrived, taken one look at the entrance area, and left immediately.

The ideal low-input location is, essentially, ‘boring’. As little as possible for you to look at, hear, or pay attention to. Remember, this doesn’t mean there won’t be input for the people who want it (more on that later). But it means people who can’t handle input can experience the event with as little as possible.

Choice of intensity

We’ve covered the main areas of the event, and made them as safe and comfortable for everyone as we can. Now it’s time to provide the choices which will allow anyone to find an enjoyable and comfortable level of stimulation. There need to be multiple places where people can go to find different levels of input. The simplest version of this is to have a low-input room, and a high-input room.

The low-input room should have all stimulation reduced even more than in the main areas, and it should be strict. This room is for people to go to when even the quiet and comfortable main areas are too overloading! There should be no talking, low lights, no noise, and no moving lights, images, or objects. It should also ideally provide comfortable places for people to relax while they are in there. That means things like seats, cushions, and plenty of space to move around the area without bumping into things or each other.

The high-input room should have no restrictions on the input people can bring to it. This room should be able to accommodate people who need any level of input to be comfortable, no matter how high! People should be allowed to talk, shout, clap, make noises, jump around, and do whatever they need to give themselves enough stimulation. There should also ideally be sources of input for people to use if they need – things like sensory toys, lights, things to touch, move around, and play with. There should also be plenty of space because people may need to take up space to be comfortable, and don’t want to risk hurting or making each other uncomfortable.

Having these two options is the ideal minimum, but more is still better. More different levels of intensity and separate levels of intensity for different senses would be even more ideal.

Choice of format

This final point covers all the individual differences that don’t fit into just being over- or under-sensitive to one sense or another. Things like processing issues or specific intolerances mean that certain types of input may be difficult or impossible for a particular person to use or enjoy. So, choice is the key here too.

Whatever information, input, or experiences are provided at the event, should all be available in as many different formats as possible. If there’s a lecture, the slides should be available as a handout for people to read at the event (not sent out as an afterthought later). If there’s a written timetable, a visual representation should be offered too. If there’s a map of the venue, arrows or directions in words should also be provided.

All of these changes will allow autistic people with specific processing differences to take in the event in their preferred way. If someone finds it impossible to concentrate on or process spoken words, they can still appreciate a lecture by reading the slides or written summary. If someone is unable to understand a visual diagram, they can navigate the venue by using a different format of directions. These options aren’t just autism-friendly, they are vital accommodations for people with all kinds of disability. For example, people with hearing or visual impairments will benefit from having information available in multiple formats. Accommodations like this have no downside for anyone. No-one attending your event will suffer by being offered a choice of formats to experience.


Autistic people’s sensory needs are hugely varied and cannot be simplified. But accommodating those needs can be simple. There are only three basic ideas you need to remember when planning your event to be sensory-friendly:

  • Minimise unnecessary input in all necessary or main areas – make it ‘boring’.
  • Provide a range of possible input levels so that everyone can find their comfortable range – ideally at least a low-input room and a high-input room.
  • Provide all information and activities in as many formats as possible, so that everyone can experience the event in the best way for them.

Even these ideas can be simplified back to the basic principle: choice is key. People are all different, and autistic people sometimes especially so. The key to accommodating us is to recognise that we are all different, and give us all the option to find our own comfort.

Inclusive autistic traits


Autism is big and messy and confusing, and no-one really understands it. It’s difficult to make a good summary and description of autistic traits, because generally no-one can agree on what autism actually is. But even taking that into account, I’ve never read a satisfactory article or leaflet summarising and describing autistic traits.  Every description I’ve ever read suffered from at least one of these problems:

  • Wrongly weighted. So many descriptions of autism written by neurotypical people focus completely on social traits. Often autism is described as an entirely social thing, and any other differences are considered incidental if they’re mentioned at all.
  • Vague. The “triad of impairments” is the worst offender here. It divides social traits arbitrarily into “interaction”, “communication”, and “imagination”, but there is absolutely no clear distinction between those categories. They’re meaningless and useless divisions that don’t remotely simplify the description, and so they serve no useful purpose – they just add confusion.
  • Pathologising. This is so extensive it’s barely worth mentioning. Descriptions of autism almost universally describe it as a disorder, illness, or disease, and the traits as symptoms and deficits. This bias is both inaccurate and harmful.
  • Restrictive. Autistic people are so incredibly varied. And yet often, the only acknowledgement of that diversity is a mention of “both ends of the spectrum”, functioning labels, or a comparison of Asperger’s and classic autism. Not only are these trivial attempts at expressing the variation between autistic people, they are actively harmful in their own right.


So, I’ve written my own. This isn’t a set of diagnostic criteria, because I don’t know how to diagnose autism. It’s my best attempt at an inclusiveaccurateuseful, and value-neutral, description of autistic traits and autistic people.

A lot of the things I’ve written feature directly opposite examples, like “may hate X” and “may love X”. This isn’t a mistake, it’s a reflection of how varied autistic people can be. Often, autistic people occupy extreme ends of the bell curve in any trait – but not necessarily the same end. Because I wrote this list to be inclusive, no autistic person will have every trait on it. That would be impossible, since many of them are mutually exclusive!

The point is to include the widest possible range of  autistic traits, not the minimum range of criteria needed to define autism. Instead of showing what things every autistic person will have in common (which would result in the kind of pitifully small and generally useless descriptions found elsewhere), this list intends to show you the greatest diversity you can expect to encounter among autistic people.

The list

With all that covered, let me get to the actual list. It’s divided into three broad categories of traits: social, sensory, and cognitive. These divisions are not perfect, but they’re the best way I’ve found of categorising, and they make it easier to understand the list. Each category is divided into sections (numbers) and subsections (letters), which each contain a list of specific example traits.


  1. Differences in body language and nonverbal communication.
    • A. Different use of eye contact.
      • May use eye contact more or less frequently than others.
      • May use eye contact only in specific situations (e.g. only with familiar people, or only with strangers).
      • May use eye contact in different ways or at different times than others.
    • B. Different use of vocal tone.
      • May use less variation in tone than others, or not use tone deliberately to add meaning.
      • May use more variation in tone than others, or have a ‘sing-song’ quality to speech.
      • May speak more loudly or quietly than others.
    • C. Different use of gestures and body language.
      • May use fewer gestures than others.
      • May not use body language deliberately to communicate.
      • May use different types of body language than others to communicate.
      • May use gestures more often than others.
    • D. Different use of facial expressions.
      • May use less variation in facial expression than others.
      • May not deliberately use facial expressions to communicate.
      • May use different types of facial expressions from others.
      • May use more expressive or extreme facial expressions than others.
  2. Differences in verbal communication.
    • A. Different use of literal and metaphorical communication.
      • May use entirely literal language.
      • May use unusual types of metaphor and analogy.
      • May focus on precision and accuracy in words used.
      • May use words to have different meanings than others.
    • B. Different use of speech.
      • May have difficulty speaking in certain situations, such as under stress.
      • May not use words at all.
      • May use echolalia (repeating specific words or phrases) to communicate.
      • May have a strong preference for text-based communication or difficulty using speech.
      • May have a strong preference for speech or difficulty using text-based communication.
  3. Differences in interaction and relationships.
    • A. Different desire for relationships.
      • May not want or need social relationships much or at all.
      • May want specific types of relationships but not others.
      • May form unusual types of relationship dynamic or be less bound by social norms.
      • May be very reliant on social norms and rules to guide relationships.
    • B. Different preferences for groups.
      • May need one-to-one interactions and struggle in larger groups.
      • May need larger group interactions and struggle one-to-one.
      • May need more structure and rules in group interactions.
      • May find presenting to crowds easier than reciprocal interactions.
    • C. Different preferences for interactions.
      • May prefer practical and pragmatic interactions or have difficulty with unfocused interactions.
      • May not be able to focus on interacting at the same time as other activities or inputs.
      • May prefer parallel interactions or have difficulty with direct interactions.
    • D. Different social instincts to other people.
      • May have trouble communicating with others, especially non-autistic people.
      • May be drawn towards other autistic people for relationships.
      • May be socially outcast by others.
      • May feel like part of a different culture.


  1. Differences in sensory sensitivity.
    • A. Over-sensitivity to certain senses or specific sensations (e.g. bright lights, specific textures, strong smells, loud noises).
      • May experience pain at sensations which others do not strongly react to.
      • May become ill or uncomfortable at sensations which others do not strongly react to.
      • May be distressed and want to avoid or escape sensations which others do not strongly react to.
    • B. Under-sensitivity to certain senses or specific sensations (e.g. pain, temperature, taste).
      • May not notice sensations which others usually react to.
      • May not be able to distinguish between sensations which others usually can.
      • May need more intense input in a certain sensation than others usually do.
    • C. Narrower comfortable range of certain senses or specific sensations.
      • May struggle to find a comfortable intensity of input.
      • May easily become over- and under-sensitive to certain sensations.
      • May need very particular type or intensity of input.
  2. Strong enjoyment, desire, or need for certain types of sensory input. Demonstrated by stimming (self-stimulation) behaviour.
    • A. Visual stimming.
      • May stare at certain lights, patterns, shapes or colours.
      • May stare at certain moving objects, changing or flashing lights.
    • B. Pressure stimming.
      • May apply pressure from weighted objects.
      • May sit or lay in postures which apply pressure from body weight.
    • C. Vestibular stimming.
      • May move in certain ways like rocking or spinning.
      • May seek activities which involve swinging, fast acceleration, or other types of movement.
    • D. Proprioceptive stimming.
      • May move body in specific ways such as hand flapping, waving, twirling hair.
      • May touch and hold onto objects and surroundings.
    • E. Tactile stimming.
      • May be drawn to the feeling of particular objects or textures.
      • May stroke or rub objects against certain body parts like hands and face.
    • F. Auditory stimming.
      • May use mouth, voice, and body to make particular sounds.
      • May use objects to make particular sounds.
    • G. Other types of stimming.
      • May be very drawn to specific smells, tastes, or other sensations.
      • May be very drawn to particular intense sensory experiences (e.g. spicy food).
      • May stim in ways which combine multiple different types of sensation.
  3. Other differences in sensory processing.
    • A. Different ways of processing multiple or combined sensations.
      • May have difficulty separating sensory experiences into individual parts.
      • May have difficulty combining individual parts into one sensory experience.
    • B. Difficulty with sensory modulation.
      • May have difficulty attending to relevant stimuli.
      • May have difficulty tuning out irrelevant stimuli.
      • May need a controlled environment with few sensory inputs at the same time.
    • C. Other specific differences or difficulties in processing.
      • May have trouble understanding or decoding speech (auditory processing disorder).
      • May have blending or merging of different senses (synaesthesia).


  1. Strength of focus and rigidity.
    • A. Intense focus and interests.
      • May spend the majority of time focused on few specific interests.
      • May concentrate on certain topics or activities for long periods of time.
      • May have strong emotional attachment to interest topics.
      • May have in-depth and expert knowledge about interest topics.
    • B. Preference for routine and sameness.
      • May have specific routines for days, weeks, or certain activities.
      • May be distressed and disoriented when routines or plans are disrupted.
      • May need to plan things carefully in advance.
      • May be more anxious than others when in new or unfamiliar situations.
  2. Difference in cognitive abilities.
    • A. Differences in executive function.
      • May have strengths or weaknesses in one or more types of memory (e.g. short-term, long-term).
      • May have difficult planning and executing a series of steps or actions.
      • May have difficulty identifying and solving problems.
      • May have difficulty concentrating on relevant information or input.
      • May have difficult starting, stopping, or changing activities.
      • May have poor impulse control.
      • May have poor sense of time.
    • B. Differences in experiencing and processing emotions.
      • May mistake physical sensations for emotions, and vice-versa.
      • May have difficulty identifying or naming emotions (alexithymia).
      • May have difficulty recognising or understanding others’ emotions.
      • May involuntarily experience others’ emotions.
    • C. Different spread of cognitive skills.
      • May have slower processing speed than others.
      • May have extreme strength in specific areas (e.g. nonverbal reasoning, language, music, mathematics).
      • May have face-blindness (prosopagnosia).
      • May have skills which vary more than others over time.
  3. Difference in thinking styles.
    • A. Different approach to details.
      • May have a strong tendency to notice details before, or instead of, overall ‘big picture’.
      • May have a strong tendency to notice overall ‘big picture’ before, or instead of, details.
      • May have difficulty creating examples from a general idea.
      • May have difficulty generalising from specific examples.
    • B. Different approach to patterns and systems.
      • May be skilled in recognising patterns.
      • May be skilled in identifying minor details and errors.
      • May be skilled in systemising subjects such as mathematics, science, puzzles, languages.
      • May enjoy organising and arranging information or objects.
    • C. Different ways of processing and making decisions.
      • May have a tendency for ‘black-and-white’ thinking and logical extremes.
      • May have a strong preference for particular ways of reasoning (e.g. logic, emotion).
      • May seem to think ‘outside the box’ or reach conclusions in different ways to others.


  1. Variation of traits.
    • A. Long-term variation.
      • May change throughout development from childhood to adulthood.
      • May change over years during adulthood.
    • B. Environment.
      • May be more sensitive to overload when already stressed, ill, or tired.
      • May use different social behaviour depending on social situation.
  2. Variation of presentation.
    • A. Conscious variation.
      • May deliberately mask traits in certain situations.
      • May use learned rules to replace instincts.
    • B. Unconscious variation.
      • May have learned masking behaviour from early childhood.
      • May have trauma or mental illness which affects presentation of traits.

Please use this list

I’d love for people to use this list, or descriptions based on it, in place of the triad of impairments and other flawed summaries. If you use it, please do credit this post – but really I care more about everyone having access to good descriptions of autism.


Nature is important to me. The main reason I’m making this post is that I sometimes forget that, which I don’t like doing.

I’ve been into nature as long as I can remember. I was always interested in animals as a kid. The biggest focus was horses when I was younger, followed by developing an interest in birds and other more local wildlife. I have an affinity for farm animals too – just ask anyone how I react to walking past fields of sheep or goats (hint: it often involves the words “I love sheep/goats”). I’ve always liked to climb trees, and being in forests feels instinctively right. I love to be near fresh water, and sometimes feel like I’m fighting the urge to jump right in when I stand at a lake.

I have a complicated relationship with seasons and the weather. I’m sometimes very affects by particular weather conditions, and I tend to feel unsettled at times when the seasons are changing most quickly. But I also know that this pattern of seasonal change is instinctive for me, and it would probably feel much more wrong for me to live somewhere like the equator where seasons are almost nonexistent. I don’t consider myself religious or spiritual, but I celebrate solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days, because marking the cycle of nature feels important to me.

I’m not describing these things to mark myself out as particularly different or unusual – I know that lots of people feel a personal connection to animals, plants, or nature in general. I’m really just writing this for myself, as a reminder that these things are important to me.

Sometimes I forget, because I’m not always able to ‘connect’ with nature as much as I ideally would. It’s difficult for me to get out into nature – anxiety, executive dysfunction, and general trouble with travelling are not particularly conducive to a life in the wilderness. But I try not to let myself feel guilty about that. Being sometimes unable to connect with nature doesn’t mean nature isn’t important for me. In the same way as being, say, physically unable to get to church wouldn’t make someone any less religious.

I have a connection to nature, and – like everything in my life – that connection is modulated by my disability. I say modulated, because it’s much more complicated than just being “limited” or “prevented”. Aspects of my connection with nature are because I’m autistic and anxious.

Going out with my camera to photograph birds is probably one of the closest things I experience to meditation. I absolutely see the value of things like meditation, but they’re also generally not suited to me. I find it hard to keep still, I feel unsettled and stressed if I don’t have enough sensory input, and my mind has a constant stream of thoughts and anxiety ready to fill up any gaps I make by ‘clearing my head’. Traditional meditation is basically an unpleasant experience, and doesn’t do anything for me.

But going out birdwatching is a pretty close alternative. I get to move around, I can focus my senses on looking and listening out for birds, and it’s calming but still engaging enough to prevent the undercurrent of anxiety from filling up all the space by default.

It’s also a pretty ‘antisocial’ activity, in the best way. It’s not that I can’t or wouldn’t want anyone else to come with me, and it’s not that I don’t enjoy sharing the photos I take. It’s just that those things are completely incidental to the activity. I go looking for birds because it’s something that I enjoy, and that’s it. While I’m walking through the trees with my camera, other people are irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter whether there’s anyone around, or whether I’m going to show my photos to someone else, or whether I’m unhappy about some relationship or another. It’s something that reinforces my own edges from within, which is not generally an easy thing for me to do. So this post is my reminder, to myself. Nature is good for me.







How to make your event autism-friendly, part 1: introduction

Posts in this series
[Part 1: Introduction]
Part 2: Sensory needs
Part 3: Cognitive needs

Last week I went to a conference specifically aimed at autistic people. But considering that it was aimed at autistic people (and that many of the people who planned and ran it were autistic), I was surprised and disappointed by just how inaccessible the event was for autistic people.

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about how to make events accessible for autistic people. I feel like some of the things I’m going to write about will be obvious, and that might well be the case. But the fact is, I just went to an autism-specific event that ended up being very inaccessible to me and many other autistic people. So it can’t hurt to write about these things, in the hope that even one person learns something that makes things better for autistic people somewhere.

It’s really not very complicated to make an event comfortable and safe for autistic people, but people often seem to get their priorities wrong when they try. Sometimes they make certain very specific changes which are good for some autistic people but make no difference for others. Sometimes they focus on just one thing, on the assumption that it’s the only change they need to be perfectly accommodating. Sometimes they simply base their changes on inaccurate information and end up with completely the wrong idea.

The fact is, autistic people are all different. Different to non-autistic people, and certainly different from each other. If most traits in the overall population can be represented by a bell curve, then autistic people are more likely to inhabit the extreme ends of the curve – either end. If you randomly choose two autistic people, they are likely to be even more different from each other than two random neurotypical people.

Autism bell curve

So you can’t just adjust things in a certain direction and expect it to be perfect for all autistic people. If you make the lights dimmer, some autistic people will appreciate it, and others will find it too difficult to see anything. If you make the lights brighter, you have the same problem. The fact is, it’s simply not possible to individually accommodate every single possible combination of autistic experiences. So how do you deal with all these inconvenient variations? Provide choice, and lots of it.

This is the basic principle underlying pretty much all kinds of disability accommodations, and should be a key aim for any event which wants to be accessible to a wide range of people. It needs to be possible for people with all kinds of different needs and preferences to find a comfortable experience at your event, otherwise it’s not accessible.

In my upcoming posts in this series, I’m going to write about specific types of autistic traits, and give advice on how to accommodate them. I will, of course, be writing mostly from my own experience. But my own experience also includes knowing and talking to a lot of other autistic people, and I hope I will be able to provide an overview that will help an event be accessible to all kinds of autistic people.