Monday, 13 March 2017

Autism: Access for All

I am passionate about access for all.  Especially to places of beauty, art, music, creativity, faith. So many autistic individuals are quite unable to access many such places.

I am fortunate to work with the Royal Collection's properties such as Windsor Castle, and with National Trust, English Heritage, Glastonbury Abbey and many others.  It's about individuals and their families having confidence that a place is accessible.

The most simple things can turn a lovely day out into a painful and exhausting process for autistic people.  There are some 2 million of us in the UK, of all ages, IQs, male, female and other gender identities.  Nearly all peaceful, kind, thoughtful individuals.

I would commend this two minute video to anyone trying to understand autism.  Autism is mostly a sensory processing difficulty. This is one young person, trying to access a very simple thing - a visit to a coffee shop.  It needs sound, turned up as loud as you can bear.  Most others can 'tune out' background noise, flickering lighting, intense smells.  Our brains cannot.  In such a place, it becomes deafening and blinding, quite literally.  Hence the escape behaviours and pain behaviours that one sometimes sees from a small number of the two million autistic people in the UK.  Many of the rest of us learn to avoid such places, at all costs.

But...if one has to avoid restaurants, cafe's, toilets...then where can one go?  Where is safe?  A visit that turns into a hungry, thirsty, desperate experience is no fun for anyone.

A good audit takes a very short amount of time.  It gives places a clear idea where the 'hazard areas' are going to be.  They can then make a judgement on how to improve this (often cheaply), or how to direct people to somewhere easier to cope with.     Armed with this information, people can make a decision on their own safety and wellbeing.  Very simple, very good news for all.   Why for all?  Because once people have made a place less of a sensory nightmare, it benefits everyone.  We saw this clearly with visitor numbers for 400 historic buildings.  Those which were 'autism friendly' saw their visitor numbers rise.

How to achieve this?  One goes to an autism access specialist, as most disability access advisers are not able to detect the hazards.  Autistic individuals can hear and see differently, and if you are not able to do that, you will miss things.  It's why it is vital to work with us, not guess.  Often, non-autistic parents or local non-autistic charity leaders are asked to tell a place what would help.  Mostly, their view is that places need lots of things for children.  Yes, it's lovely to have a play area.  But most autistic people are adults, some of us very senior businesspeople, and us playing on the swings is not an especially good idea. OK, it is fun....but....

Non-autistic parents then wonder why their children are often still screaming at the end of a visit.  Or have run away.  Or have injured themselves because they could not see a hazard.  Easy; the non-autistic parents cannot see the sensory hazards, so inadvertently dragged the child through a set of very painful and exhausting zones.  Without any idea, for that child, when the pain is going to stop.  Wouldn't you perhaps scream, fight and run?   Most autistic individuals don't.  They 'shut down' instead.  We become unable to communicate our needs, and can just stop moving.  It is because our brain shuts itself down to save further pain.   It's a terrifying experience for us, and dangerous. Either way, it's a situation that is easily avoided.

This is a fast hand drier.  Lots of places install them in the loos.  Result - many autistic people cannot access the space.  It sounds like a jet aircraft taking off, right next to us, unexpectedly.  So loud that we are forced straight into a brain event. If one knows about this, one can avoid purchasing them.   One can otherwise direct to an accessible toilet where there are paper towel alternatives.   It's easy to start to think round the challenge.
Designing a building?  Start by asking an autistic consultant to work with the project team, so that you can avoid costly errors that may lead to injury or worse for autistic individuals of all ages.  We can assess buildings at the planning stage, or at any stage of fix and fitting thereafter, ensuring that light, sound, airflow and space considerations work for all users to the benefit of all, and with minimum extra cost.  Did you know that changing the handles and bannisters can make a huge difference, for example?  Or that a simple change of colour from intense white to a softer shade with good contrast to edges can help autistic people as well as most others?  Installing a Building Management System to control heating, air conditioning, etc?  Take advice on noise levels, vibration considerations, etc.
Much of the existing design information around autism was based on the old standards from decades ago, when there were the myths that we all had learning disabilities and all lived in care homes.  Only 2% of autistic people fit that description.  The rest of us are right here, next to you.
It is good for business, it is good for PR, and most importantly, it means fewer of your visitors will be in a state of pain and exhaustion after a visit.  Fewer injuries, more profit.  More members, bringing more of their family and friends, and having a fabulous, cheerful time.
Autistic people would love access to the same beautiful things as everyone else.  Often, we are the artists, the sculptors, the musicians, the people who have the ability to donate monies.  Then, we find we are unable to access the very events that promote the work.   As the saying goes, "Industry without art is brutality".  

I'd like a less brutal world for us all.  Would you?