Category Archives: Disability and accommodations

How to make your event autism-friendly, part 3: cognitive needs

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

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!

Information

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.

Details

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.

Time

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.

Reliability

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.

Conclusions

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!

 

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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.

Conclusions

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.

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.