Tuesday 7 November 2017

"Autism-Friendly Event" What do we mean?

I see a lot of venues starting to offer, "Autism-Friendly" events.  

Some are very good.  For example, perhaps they think about holding the event in a quieter location, using non-flickering lighting.  Maybe they think about offering a quiet 'escape space' for those needing downtime.  They have staff who are trained on modern understanding of autism, and are relaxed and enabling with people.  They do not hold the event in a room filled with decor closely resembling an explosion in a paint-and-pattern factory, with jet-engine-noise from air conditioning and bathroom hand driers....with no way to get away from that chaos. They don't have to make every inch of the venue noisy for each and every one of us attending.

They can think about advertising in ways that most autistic people can access.  They provide enough advance info, plans, photos etc to give confidence about sensory hazards that still exist - and how to avoid them.

But, some events advertise themselves as (for example) "Autism Friendly Performance for You and your Children With Autism.  We won't mind if you child runs around making lots of noise". 

Some puzzlement about the phrase, 'Children with autism'...I mean, do they bring the autism with them in a separate bag?  Are they children with whiteness, or children with Blackness?  What about children with maleness or femaleness?  Most autistic people like to be called autistic people, although one needs to respect individual differences of opinion, of course.  Be aware of autistic preferred language when advertising generally, and be ready to adapt that for individuals.

The thing is, though, most autistic people aren't children. Most of us are adults.  Most of us do not run round things, making lots of noise.  A good number of us are very very quiet and well behaved indeed.  Many are professionals, many are older or elderly.  Many are middle aged mums, like me, fitting in events around our jobs and family lives.

The picture shows how a busy, noisy event looks to my particular autistic sight.  So difficult to navigate and make sense of. A chaos of colour and pattern.  I am blinded and deafened. Exhausting.  

What a good number of venues mean is, "We will turn the lights and volume down a bit, and let young children run around wildly for the whole time they're here, making as much noise as they like...and we'll guard the exits".

There are occasions when that is important.  A number of events are specifically for lively children who also need a lot of safety as a result, of course.  But, some other types of venues also think this is what 'generally autism friendly' means.  No. If anything, it is a peril for many autistic people.  For example autistic young people and children who need quiet, and find lots of racing-about to be very overwhelming and frightening.

Also, autistic adults who need quiet, and aren't able to cope well with a load of children screeching and sprinting around them. 
Autistic adults or children who have mobility difficulties, and who may be knocked flying by fast-moving autistic children.

This is why it is important for autistic people to have access to a range of events, and for safety to be thought through for everyone.  

Not least because many autistic adults wish to attend all sorts of events.  Events showcasing art, sculpture, ballet.  Concerts. Religious services. Shops.  Restaurants. Theatres. Exhibitions.  Consultations.  Meetings.  Lectures.  In fact, every single event and venue that everyone else gets to go to.

No, we don't need a separate autism-event for each of these.

We may need advance information of what's ahead.  We need that information to show us the main sensory hazard areas, and the quiet area to get away from those. Get autistic people to help spot the sensory hazards in your venue.  Photos and plans on a website are great.  We need to know that the staff aren't going to think we're rude for not making eye contact, or being unable to speak using clear language.   That's good basic autism knowledge and information.  Those sorts of things enable so many of us to access things all day, every day.  

And...it enables everyone else to feel comfortable too.  People who are nervous.  People who are shy.  People who are exhausted.  People who are new to the venue.  People who don't have English as a first language.  Everyone knows what's ahead.

It helps venues get the business of an extra million-plus autistic customers in the UK.  Plus their families and friends, their colleagues and allies.

Most autism access is very easy.

So, yes please to having places where parents don't have to worry about their children exploring and making noise.  That's important.  But please don't mistake that for your organisation ticking all the boxes for 'autism friendly'.   

Most of us are not children.  The rest of us would love to attend your fabulous events and venues, too.