Lessons in Holding Events with Autistics for Your Audience

It has been exactly a week since the Autism Society Philippines held the 13th Philippine National Autism Conference, and as what I’ve said in my previous post, in a sea of parents, teachers, therapists, and other neurotypical advocates, there will always be autistic people in the swarm. This has always been the case, especially in seminars, conferences, and other events where the topic is autism awareness and advocacy.

Spending the post-conference euphoria (I always tend to relish successes for a long time), as well as in the spirit of Autistics Speaking Day, I stumbled upon some posts made by fellow awesomes from the other side of the world as they attended autism conferences and events, and it turns out that they had had bad experiences from attending.

One such bad experience was from Neurodivergent K, who discussed her dissatisfied experiences at Autreat, a convention for individuals on the autism spectrum, organized by the Autism Network International, a US-based advocacy group run by autistic individuals. What was supposed to be an autism-friendly event, as K have illustrated, turns out to be disastrous for other individuals on the spectrum, and the organizers weren’t as accommodating as they normally should be. In her case, it was sensory overload, and failure of the organizing committee to understand and attempt to accommodate her needs as both participant and resource person. You may read her series of posts discussing her experience with Autreat at timetolisten.blogspot.com (note that it is in a series).

Though Purple Aspie’s (another autistic blogger) experiences in a different event weren’t as bad as K’s (as she has written), these weren’t good either. She attended an autism conference where sensory needs of many autistic individuals were not given into consideration, such as excessively loud sound, non-adherence to schedules, and poor customer relationship on the part of the organizers. You may read her post at purpleaspie.wordpress.com.

I’ll be wearing my two hats at the same time: the event organizer’s hat and the autistic self-advocate’s hat. To be quite honest, I would find myself guilty of violating certain sensory triggers. As a visual designer of autism events, I have my own sensory needs — movement is video production is euphoric for me, and solid, simple, and eschewal of skeuomorphic elements in print and static design is a must for me. But sometimes, there are fellow awesomes who find my taste as overwhelming for their senses. I could remember in the last conference where I organized, when a mentor of mine, who is on the spectrum, was particularly bothered of the zoom effects I had used for the background video, and asked me to pause the video. I won’t pretend it’s okay for me — I find it frustrating, considering that this was what I was accustomed into. But that I did anyway.

Another unsavory experience of mine in the same conference was how I was talked to by a fellow organizer. In this case, she was the program director, and a parent member of the organization of which I am part of, and I was working with her as one of the technical coordinators. Here are some of my sensitivities in this case:

  • It takes me a while to warm up to strangers, especially if I have to work with them a day after I met them in person (online introductions don’t really work for me).
  • I may not adhere to call times sometimes, which may either due to my own fault or circumstances beyond my control, but I usually have everything prepared the night before, and I catch up quickly.
  • I take the program very seriously, and adhere to conference schedules very rigidly.
  • I don’t want to be shouted at, and have hands waved in my face.
  • I walk out of the venue when circumstances allow, to let out some pressure so I don’t turn into rubble.

In this case, though, some of these sensitivities were breached into. The conference was supposed to start at exactly 9:00 in the morning, but was held back, because some speakers arrived late. I asked the program director if I should play the countdown, since the speaker who arrived late was there, but I was motioned to wait, with a sharp voice and her palm in the face. At that point, I was in the verge of a meltdown, and I simply shut down. I threw a bag on my chair and was about to cry. It took another technical coordinator, who was a friend of mine, to calm me down. I simply said, “I don’t want to say anything stupid.” I tried not to, because had I not been calmed down, I could have walked out that instant, or worse, lashed out at the director à la Gordon Ramsay.

So much for my bad experiences and those of others. Now, the lingering questions for autism event organizers are:

  • How do you hold events where autistics form a part or are the majority of your audience?
  • How do you deal with autistic individuals who are part of your organizing committee, or those who are your participants?
  • How do you make the event a pleasurable experience for your participants?

It simply boils down to proper planning, good guest relations, understanding of audience factors, technical possibilities and limitations, and simply straight put: saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Involve us autistics in your planning. We may have brighter ideas that may help your event become a success and a pleasurable experience for everyone, autistic and non-autistic alike.

If you’re holding an event where autistic people form a majority of your audience share, make this about them, with them in mind. Sure, their parents, therapists, teachers, and caregivers may be there, but for whom do you make the event? Is it for their parents, therapists, teachers, and caregivers? Or is it for autistic people? I mean, come on, make up your minds.

Train your organizing staff basic customer service skills. Nobody, autistic or non-autistic, wants unenthusiastic people in the front lines, let alone rude ones. If smiling isn’t your cup of tea, at least try, and be polite. Yes, most of all, be polite. If you’re faced with a difficult delegate, don’t take them personally. If they’re really being a pain in the butt and you find it difficult handle them even with all your powers, have an escalation procedure ready. Refer them to a higher staff member.

To finish this up, I would quote this battle-cry used by every self-advocate alive:

Nihil de nobis, sine nobis. Nothing about us, without us!

**********

Anyway, I remembered: I’ve got an event to organize. Whew. I’ll keep you guys updated if anything comes up.

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