Autistic cognitive differences are often some of the least discussed traits. They tend to be fairly ‘internal’, and so their effects are not always obvious from the outside. In spite of this, they can be just as significant as any of the more familiar and stereotypical traits, and cognitive needs can’t be ignored when planning accessibility. Cognitive needs are perhaps the most important to address in advance of an event. Some of these things have to be considered long before the event in order to have any use. Without them, many autistic people will just silently not attend your event – you won’t even realise you’ve made it inaccessible, because they couldn’t get as far as attending and finding it difficult. But these are also possibly some of the easiest needs to meet, with a little consideration!
A common cognitive trait is to have difficulty with generalising information from one context to another. This can take a lot of different forms and manifest in many different ways. One of the ‘better-known’ examples is that we sometimes struggle to understand social rules or implications that other people can work out intuitively – NT people are typically more able to collect information from various sources and then combine it and apply it to new situations. Whereas autistic people are more likely to store information in context and be less able to apply it in new situations or in different ways.
In essence, this means that many autistic people struggle to predict or imagine what is going to happen. At an event like a conference or group, there are endless unspecified rules and expectations about what will happen. That covers everything from how guests are expected to behave, what the event will be like, what staff will do, who the staff will be, what will go on at and between the sessions, and many more obscure and specific things.
An NT person – even one who has never been to a conference before – might find it pretty easy to work out what’s going on as they go. They are likely to combine together information and predictions from other sources; like things other people have told them in the past, things they’ve experienced at similar (but different) events, and use those predictions to give themself a sense of what will happen in advance. Then while things are actually happening, they will be constantly picking up and absorbing new bits of information – watching where other people go, listening to things staff and other attendees say, making extrapolations and predictions from every scrap of knowledge they get hold of. And of course the pinnacle of non-autistic skill – interacting with other people (I genuinely almost forgot to include that point, because it didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until I was almost finished writing!).
In comparison, autistic people generally find it harder (or impossible) to use the available sources of information in the way non-autistic people do. I might have heard people describe going to conferences before, but I am certainly not able to generalise that information to any useful predictions about my own first experience at a conference. I can theoretically watch where other people are going when I’m lost, but I have no way of ‘reading’ who might be going to the place I want to be. I’m technically able to talk to other attendees if I don’t know what’s going on, but that possibility may genuinely not occur to me (see above). And even if it does occur to me, the combined task of initiating a conversation with a stranger, communicating the information I’m trying to get, interpreting whatever response they make, and maintaining any degree of ‘social acceptability’ or friendliness, is pretty much out of the question – particularly if I want to have any energy left to actually experience the lecture or event that I’m there for.
The solution to those ‘in-the-moment’ sources of information being difficult or impossible for autistic people to use: provide the information explicitly for everyone. It’s not a complicated request. If you’re a non-autistic event organiser, you probably already have most of this information mentally stored away without even noticing. But it does absolutely no harm – and a lot of good – to make it available in a concrete way for any attendee to access.
When I say information, NT readers might be thinking, “we already give people a schedule for the conference!” or “the venue’s website has a map and directions”. If that’s what you’re thinking, then think more detailed. For me, there is literally no such thing as ‘too much detail’ when I’m trying to get information about something . As an example of this kind of detail, I would strongly recommend taking a look at the website for Autscape. Autscape is a conference/convention organised by and for autistic people, and they do a great job of providing detailed information to participants. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start if you want examples of the kind of detail I’m talking about.
In my opinion, for an event to be autism-friendly the following information should be explicitly available to all participants:
- Information about the venue
- Location (including maps and directions).
- Pictures and descriptions to recognise the venue from the outside and how to find the entrance.
- Maps and directions for navigating the whole venue and getting from place to place. Make sure to give information that might be relevant for people with physical disabilities (like where there are stairs and lifts, how far it is between locations, where to find places to sit).
- Pictures and descriptions of everywhere that people might go during the event – that means every room. What are the seating arrangements? Where will the presenters be? Where is the entrance(s) to the room? And remember to give information that might be relevant to people with sensory sensitivities (like if a room contains fluorescent lights, noisy air conditioning, fresh paint).
- Make sure to describe toilets, including whether there are separate gendered toilets (sometimes they are not right next to each other), where to find gender-neutral toilets (hint: making a gender-neutral toilet in a venue that doesn’t have one is as simple as finding some blu-tac and writing “gender-neutral toilet” on a piece of paper), and wheelchair accessible toilets.
- Make sure to specify where people can find quiet and sensory rooms, and what will be there (see previous post in this series!).
- A description of the rules and expected behaviour for every part of the event.
- Explain exactly what people should do when they arrive.
- Specify anywhere which people are not allowed to go, and anything that shouldn’t be touched.
- Rules about unacceptable behaviour like harassment
- Any rules from the venue like whether alcohol is allowed.
- Guidelines about asking questions or interacting during talks and presentations – for example, how many questions one person can ask, or whether to go and talk to the presenter after they are finished.
- Who to ask for help, and how to find them (like a picture and description of the uniform staff will be wearing).
- Information about social interaction (more on this in the next post of the series!).
- A schedule of what will happen at the event.
- The time the venue opens and the earliest people can start to arrive.
- The time limits for registration.
- The exact planned start and finish times for every part of the event, including information about things which will happen at the same time, which people might have to choose between.
- Start and finish times for lunch and breaks, including opening and closing times for things like cafeterias if they don’t correspond with the whole event. (At the legendarily badly-organised event last year, me and some friends went to the cafe after one talk, but found it was already closed without warning and we had nowhere else to go).
- Include any extra details about individual events – like if a presentation will involve a 30-minute talk and a 20-minute Q&A section.
Seems like a lot of work? This is information that everyone needs. If you’re planning for non-autistic people, you have probably assumed that your attendees already have (or can predict or figure out) most of this stuff already – and you almost certainly already know most of it yourself. The work required is simply taking your implicit assumptions and expectations about what people will all ‘just know’, and making the information explicit so that everyone has it.
Autistic people often need longer to process things than non-autistic people. Every source of input is another thing to process, and a new and busy experience like a conference is a huge onslaught of input to deal with. Ultimately, as an event organiser you can’t fix this. If your event wasn’t an onslaught of input, it wouldn’t be an event at all – people are attending because they want new input. But what you can do is allow that input to be spread over as much time as possible so people can process it as they need.
The first – perhaps easiest – thing you can do is to provide information in advance of the event. In the same way that non-autistic people are good at collecting information as they go along and improvising their predictions, they’re also good at processing all that information in real time in order to make use of it. And in the same way that autistic people find it hard to use implicit information like that, it’s also usually harder and takes more time to process and absorb information when we get it.
If a non-autistic person is attending a conference for the first time, they might be perfectly happy to pick up the schedule as they walk through the door, and then start looking at the presentations and deciding which ones to go to. If I was to go to a conference and the schedule wasn’t available until I arrived – well, I wouldn’t be able to arrive in the first place. If I was to start planning and making decisions about what to do on the day, I wouldn’t be finished until I’d missed all the presentations anyway. And I’d spend that whole time crippled with stress and overload from trying to deal with all the information at once and respond accordingly. That would never happen, because I would protect myself by avoiding an event which I couldn’t prepare for adequately.
It’s not just schedules – it’s all the information. The more you make available in advance, the better. There is literally no such thing as offering too much detail. When should you make your information available? As soon as you have it! There is no reason not to! Making an event autism-friendly is far more than simply promising “this event will be autism-friendly”, and then dealing with everything on the day. If an event claims to be autism-friendly but doesn’t provide information in advance, then I (and many others like me) can’t attend at all. It doesn’t matter how wonderfully you plan to do things on the day if you aren’t telling people exactly what will be wonderful about it.
Preparation in advance is vital, but processing time during an event is important too. Autistic people are likely to need more breaks than the typical NT attendee in order to rest and recover between activity. Schedules breaks are good, but it’s also important to simply allow people to take breaks of their own accord – make sure there are places to go if someone chooses not to go to one of the activities of the day.
Additionally, if there are things which can only happen during the event – like choosing questions to ask in a discussion – you can still provide as much preparation time as possible. If a presentation is going to end with a Q&A, tell people at the start, so they can write down questions as they think of them, instead of trying to spontaneously come up with them with moments of warning.
Again, many of these things simply involve making the implicit, explicit. If your presenter knows that there will be a Q&A at the end, then your audience can know. There is no downside.
Information is great and important. But it also only helps if it’s correct information. There’s no use in providing a detailed schedule for an event and then changing it the day before without telling people. As with other things, an issue like this might seem to be a minor inconvenience for an NT person and not worth worrying about. But for an autistic person who needs careful planning to function, unexpected change may make them extremely anxious, confused, disoriented, and upset – and it can be very hard to recover from that.
At the event which first prompted me to write this series, there was a terrible planning failure that resulted in registration being way too busy and taking way longer than expected. This meant that all the sessions of the day were offset by twenty-five minutes. This is pretty much the worst possible thing that could happen at an event that’s supposed to be autism-friendly. For autistic people who depend on predictability, knowing the times of events in advance gives a safe framework of what’s going to happen. If that fails, it’s like having the floor pulled from underneath us.
So, a reliable and stable plan is a vital aspect of making an event autism-friendly. Make a plan. Make it realistic. Make it specific and concrete. Then stick to it.
Like previous posts in this series, the general summary is that you should provide choice. Information should be available to people who need it, and people who don’t need it can simply ignore it. By providing choice like this, you can greatly widen the range of people who are able to experience your event. I’ve summarised four basic points to consider here:
- Make information available and explicit, no matter how obvious you might consider it.
- Make the information detailed and specific – there is no such thing as too much detail available.
- Allow processing time, by providing information in advance wherever possible, and making it easy to take breaks if needed.
- Make your information reliable – make plans realistic, and then stick to them.
I know that I haven’t included every possible change that could help autistic people. Everyone is different, and it’s impossible for any advice to be completely exhaustive. But the things I’ve written about are the things I think will have the most positive effects for autistic people while being the most achievable for event organisers. Like most forms of accommodations for disability, doing these things will have almost entirely positive effects for everyone, autistic or otherwise. Maybe your event will even be more likely to go to plan if you let everyone in on it!