This pride month, we’d like to highlight the many autistic queer people in our community and challenge pride event organizers to think about accessibility. This article is written by AutismBC Marketing Coordinator Terri Hopkinson.
For many people, being openly themselves can come with dire social, physical, emotional, and legal repercussions. Their very existence is political. In those circumstances, having a space to relieve that pressure and to be accepted among peers can be crucial to survival. For queer people, in recent history, the safest (safe being a relative term) places to congregate were bars and clubs. There is safety in numbers, safety under the cover of darkness, and safety in anonymity. In many ways, modern queer culture is still rooted in those spaces, even as the greater community (in some areas) has become more accepting.
If you’re autistic, you’ll have already spotted the problem. Autistic queer people have that same need to be authentically themselves, but bars and clubs are rarely, if ever, fully accessible for those on the spectrum. Sensory stimulus hits you from every angle in those environments: loud, overlapping conversation and even louder music fills your ears; sweat, alcohol, and over-sprayed perfumes find your nose; bodies shift past you and push too close; bright strobe lights flash through artificial fog. Maybe this is tolerable so long as your friends are close, maybe its enjoyable for short periods, but you know the consequences of overstimulation will find you.
And all of this assuming you don’t also feel pressured to mask, which takes the benefit of being able to present your authentic queer self and throws it directly out the window.
Existing at the intersection of two marginalized identities (like queer and autistic) is its own challenge. Not only will you experience unique discrimination from outside your communities, but there will also inevitably be discrimination between your communities. It is very hard to feel comfortable in a space where part of you is accepted and another rejected. Queer autistic people don’t exist as a fraction; no one is one part queer and two parts autistic, or any other ratio. Queer autistic people are autistically queer and queerly autistic. For a space to feel truly safe and inclusive for a queer autistic person, it must be accepting of them as a whole person.
Outside of autistic inclusion, there is already some movement away from bars and clubs in the queer community. Expanding queer spaces has long been discussed as a way to include minors, elders, and sober people. Despite this, there is still a dearth of queer-centric business for quieter activity like coffee shops, board game cafes, bookstores, etc. Instead, grassroots social clubs seem to be the way the community is moving. Things like queer sports leagues, poetry readings, D&D groups, support groups, speed dating, and much more are becoming more prevalent in many places. Still, these activities present their own challenges for autistic people, whether due to the activity itself or stigma and lack of acceptance from other participants.
So, how do we truly welcome autistic people into queer spaces? Whether it is a club, a social group, a pride parade, a protest, or a dating app, I believe there is always a way to be more inclusive and that inclusion benefits autistics and allistics alike. Here are some suggestions:
Be Aware of Sensory Stimuli
All of the sensory concerns mentioned above add different qualities to an experience. Planning things like lighting and noise level with intention will always make for a more cohesive event, but it can also make a space more inclusive. Consider the cumulative effects of the sensory environment. Is there quieter space available or another way to “opt out” of stimuli?
Though not always practical, “silent discos” come to mind. Instead of loudspeakers, everyone is given a set of headphones. The headphones have individual volume control and, of course, can be taken off entirely. This is not only useful for people with sensory sensitivities, it also allows for easier conversation and happier neighbours. (I’ve even seen events with multiple DJs playing at a time, so if you are dancing off-beat, people just assume you’re listening to a different song!) While this is a more out-of-the-box example of a solution, making a space more sensory-friendly can be achieved with simpler changes like providing earplugs or reducing capacity.
Accessibility is a big subject and means different things to different people. Here are a few examples that will not only help autistic people enjoy your event but should be beneficial to all attendees.
One easy (and free!) way to improve accessibility for autistic people is by providing as much information about your event as you can ahead of time. New situations can be difficult for autistic people but knowing what to expect can relieve some of that stress. Include info on start and end times, location details, menus, seating, available accommodations and how to obtain them, and any other relevant details, as well as a point of contact for other questions.
Provide Communication Aids
Many autistic people experience auditory processing difficulties, meaning there can be a delay between hearing something and processing what was said. Leaving room in a conversation for that delay is much more accessible than everyone talking over each other, which can result in autistic people feeling like they are being left out of a conversation entirely. Being aware of that and being an advocate in those situations can make a world of difference. Other changes, like clear signage and name tags, can also make an event much more navigable.
(This is also why it’s paramount to always have subtitles on when screening a film. They are an accessibility feature that not only assists the Deaf and hard of hearing community, but autistics, non-native speakers, and others as well.)
Create Sensory-Friendly Solutions
Not all events can be completely sensory-friendly, but it is often possible to improve an autistic person’s experience. Providing a “sensory map” ahead of time can help autistic people prepare for any bright, loud, or smelly stimuli and bring any supports they may require. You may also consider having earplugs available at your event. Dulling the sounds can make loud music and overlapping noises more bearable. A quieter space is always appreciated as well. I have been to queer events where there were much calmer rooms away from the dance floor. These served many purposes but, not least of all, they were more sensory-friendly.
Do Your Own ResearchThere are a lot of innovative solutions for accessibility out there, more than can be covered in one blog. Search the internet for not only those solutions, but also the problems you may not have thought of. When possible, polling your attendees and asking for feedback can help you plan ahead (or at least for the next time).
Beyond even the need for physical and mental accessibility, the key factors of an accessible space for autistic people are social and emotional accessibility. As I mentioned before, the whole point of queer spaces is the relief of being your authentic self. If that relief is only available to queer people who present themselves in a certain way, then it is not a safe space.
Don’t draw attention to or judge behaviours you might find unusual. Fidgeting, speaking too loudly or too softly, asking a lot of questions, and spacing out are all examples of how autistic people may express themselves or handle stress. It may not be something you are used to but pointing the behaviour out can be alienating and cause the person to become self-conscious.
Check in with your autistic friends and attendees on how they’re doing. It may be more comfortable for them to be asked about what they need than to bring it up themselves. Don’t be offended if someone needs to leave early – knowing their limit is a healthy way for people to handle their sensory needs.
Lastly, don’t pressure autistic people to participate in the first place. Being inclusive and accommodating is wonderful, but people know themselves, what they can handle, and what they enjoy. Offering time to think about the answer and process is usually appreciated, but taking no for an answer is also an important part of acceptance.
Educate and Create Inclusion Policies
Creating inclusive spaces begins with an inclusive mindset. Are you considering people with different needs as you design and plan? Are you doing so as a matter of policy or just “when you remember?” Having an inclusion policy in place ensures that details crucial to accessibility don’t get forgotten or deemed “unimportant.”
Educating yourself, other organizers, event staff, and key stakeholders in what inclusion and accessibility means to autistic people is the first step. AutismBC offers Community Training and Custom Workshops developed by experts and autistic self-advocates to help organizations learn how to better support and serve autistic individuals. Click here for more details on the program.
Everyone deserves the freedom to be themselves. Here is a summary of the accommodations suggested in this article to make your event accessible for autistic people.