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Hosting an inclusive event for Autistic participants

Are you having an event that includes Autistic participants or delegates (adults or children)?

Do you want to ensure that your event is accessible and respectful of Autistic sensory and communication needs?

These guidelines will help you to support the needs of the Autistic individuals attending your event.

They are not, by any means, comprehensive or exhaustive. But they are the minimum you should offer to make your Autistic guests comfortable.

Physical environment

Ensure that you have:

  • Turned off bright, direct, or flashing lights.

  • Established a ‘fragrance-free’ environment (ask all attendees to refrain from wearing strong perfumes and aftershaves. Deodorant or antiperspirant is necessary, however!).

  • Designated two separate spaces for your Autistic attendees:

    • Autistic social space is for Autistic individuals who wish to socialise with their ‘neurokin’ (that is, other Autistic individuals) in a way that is natural to them. Autistic social space is a place for eating (NB: provide Autistic-friendly catering and check dietary requirements and food preferences), stimming, and bringing the Autistic community together. You should provide stim toys if possible.

    • Autistic quiet space, a room away from other people in which people who are overwhelmed can go to unwind and relax. Dim the lights, provide beanbags and quiet stim toys, and water. This space is not for socialising, it is a relief from overwhelm. NB: The room should be accessible without going through crowds, and should be away from as much ambient noise as possible.

  • Informed participants about bathroom etiquette. Whilst turning off electric hand-dryers and other noisy appliances is often offered as a solution to establishing an accessible bathroom environment for Autistic participants, this measure is not necessarily inclusive for people with other disabilities. Participants should be encouraged to use paper towel rather than hand dryers whenever possible, but hand dryers are an important accessibility requirement to ensure that all participants, regardless of their disability, are catered for. We suggest having signage on bathroom doors and above or around the hand drying area stating, “This bathroom is inclusive. That means this bathroom has both hand dryers and hand towels. Many people with neurological differences have difficulty with unexpected and/or loud noises. We ask that you use paper towel when you are able to do so”. *

Communication

All delegates should understand and respect the ‘dots’ system.

As an organiser, you should provide a series of coloured sticky dots to each delegate (green, orange or yellow, and red).

If a delegate is displaying a green dot (on their name tag or somewhere visible), this signifies that they are willing to engage in conversation with anyone.

If a delegate is displaying an orange/yellow dot, this signifies that they are willing to engage only briefly, or only with those people they already know.

If a delegate is displaying a red dot, this signifies that they do not wish to communicate with anyone at that time.

Delegates can change the colour of their dot throughout the event, so everyone needs to check to ensure that attendees are willing to ‘chat’, even if they might have been willing at an earlier time.

We suggest encouraging all participants (Autistic and non-autistic) to use the dot system, and to have a number of sets of dots readily available to participants (e.g., in a conference bag rather than at a registration desk).

In addition, delegates who do not wish to be photographed can wear a black dot to signify that they do not give consent to be photographed or videoed. This dot saves your delegates from having to verbally protest when a photo is being taken. It also means that everyone attending (particularly photographer and videographer) should look for the black dot before engaging participants.

Unless prior consent has been given, everyone should check before shaking hands or hugging, to ensure that all delegates are comfortable with physical contact.

Applause

If appropriate to your event, please prepare all delegates to participate in Autistic (otherwise called ‘Deaf’) applause (‘Autplause’ if you like). This means that instead of applauding with sound, we applaud with hands raised in the air while being twisted back and forth. This protects those Autistic people with noise sensitivities.

Preparation

It is wise to have one or two team members on hand to support Autistic participants (or more, depending on numbers), and for Autistic participants to have a way to communicate with the support team via non-traditional means (e.g., SMSing, messaging).

If your Autistic delegates include non-traditional communicators, you should ensure that one of your team is able to communicate fluently in the communication method required (e.g., sign language, iCommunicate for iPad, Proloquo2Go etc.).

Ideally, you would provide your Autistic delegates with visual and written information well in advance of the event. Such preparatory material should include:

  • An order of events or program for the event with timing;

  • Information about the proposed catering, with an invitation for delegates to provide dietary and food preference requirements to organisers;

  • Photographs of the support staff and their contact details for the event;

  • Information about public transport to and from the event (including best routes to walk from bus-stops or train stations). Many Autistic people don’t drive or find driving an anxiety trigger, and

  • Information about the venue (including parking, toilets, Autistic social space, Autistic quiet space, a map of the venue or grounds).

If your Autistic guests are children, this information might be best presented as a social story.

These simple steps will help to make the event comfortable, accessible, and inviting to your Autistic guests, big and small!

* My thanks to Cadence for her excellent advice on establishing inclusive bathroom etiquette.

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