Creating an Autism Friendly Environment

Below is a brief introduction to creating an autism-friendly, sensory aware environment for a meeting. The text was an answer to an email enquiry (about developing an ‘autism-awareness training day for staff) and is by no means comprehensive.  Of course, we endeavour to follow our own guidance at all of our events.

Travel and access:  Have you thought about any issues that could lead to confusion over, for example, venue directions, parking, entrance, reception staff, times etc? A photo of the venue entrance and the actual room can be extremely helpful tp reduce pre-meeting nerves.  Could you go that extra step to ask any known autistic attendees of they have any requirements at the initiation stage of the meeting?

Before discussing the actual space, clarity and simplicity in the meeting is important, to avoid confusion and also providing equal opportunities for speaking contributions.  This can mean extra pressure for the facilitator / chairperson but more inclusivity and participation means you’ll get a wider and more representational range of voices, so that could mean from more sensitive autistic people.

Be specific around timing, eg. an announced five minute break should literally be a five minute break and at the exact time stated.

Splitting into small groups for a workshop activity is fine if there are clear instructions and guidance (but not over-elaborated either). Round table discussion is of course simpler but with plenty of space at each place – ‘hole in the middle’ format means more space and less sensory risk in your autism-friendly environment (smells, gaze, loud voices etc.)

You could say a few things at the beginning to indicate acceptance and an inclusive ethos, so this would mean explaining that anyone is free to wander or leave without saying anything.You could also see of there’s a quiet space if anyone needs time out on their own for a short time.  Some autistic people love to hear they’re being thought about but without being singled out.  Making sure someone’s OK (particularly if you think they might not be) means you might have to ask them tactfully.

‘Stimming’ is becoming more common in public so for example someone might need a hand-pressure squeeze tool to modulate their senses if they need it. Someone might also wiggle their feet or hands a bit or doodle.  Any repetitive motion is either automatic or intentional, in order to modulate sensory input, but can also be a sign of increased anxiety.

An autistic person’s ability to effectively engage socially will be affected by sensory stimuli in the environment eg. smells (eg. strong perfume), noise (eg. ticking clocks, phones, printers, roadworks), light (eg. if the sun is in someone’s eyes they may not feel socially confident enough to say so). Bright lights (especially office strip lights) nearly always have a negative effect on an autistic person.  Be aware of one person pointing at someone else or using a dominant voice often found in debates (especially talking over others or for a long time), this can be overwhelming for an autistic person. An autistic person might not be able to report, demonstrate or modulate anxiety. In fact anxiety is often addressed by self-silencing (muting), which of course can make things worse.

Triggers: An important aspect to consider is a ‘trigger’. eg. Someone in the room may think they might be autistic or waiting for a diagnosis and information given or activities can trigger responses – here is where very good facilitation is needed as well as providing a ‘safe environment’.  Saying ‘trigger warning’ or ‘content warning’ at the beginning of a delivery containing very sensitive, emotion-inducing information (eg. abuse or suicide) is good practice.

Participatory:  True participation can never be underestimated and the main setting which problems are being seen is where non-autistic people speak on behalf of autistic people, without due caution. The autistic community values the experience of being autistic above all other knowledge.  In an ‘autism awareness’ training environment, we seriously recommend you consider autistic person delivery, as the last thing you want is to alienate (or worse, distress) an autistic trainee with what is often seen as ‘an outsider view’.   PARC and Autistica are pioneering with autistic-led, knowledge-supported projects.

National Autistic Society have a good introductory video called ‘Make it Stop’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHHwZJX67-M

To an ‘autism awareness’ training we would also suggest adding: Neurodiversity, Stimming, Interventions (including controversial so-called ‘treatments’) and Safeguarding

The future is going to be more participatory with autistic voices getting stronger.  Everyone needs basic understanding of autism and everyone can benefit from knowing how to create an autism-friendly environment.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, also one autism-friendly environment might not be conducive to all autistic people!

I am sure you could think about some other aspects, personal or otherwise, so please put them in the comments box below.

One comment

  1. Some great advice here; thanks.

    An additional stressor for me is the negative sensory impact that many toilets* have on me, in particular the smell of the cleaning / air freshening products used and also the noise of the hand dryers, especially the Dyson blades (and similar models). The problem of smells is often compounded in small and/or windowless toilets, as chemical smells are not dispersed rapidly after use; additionally, windowless toilets are more likely to have automatic air fresheners – ones that mist spray into the room every few minutes.

    Part-solutions could include:
    a) turning off hand dryers for the duration of the meeting / training day (with signs up to inform what and why, plus hand towels or other means of hand drying)
    b) having a word with the caretaker to see if it’s possible for a less-offensive cleaner to be used, even if it’s only for that day (it may be necessary to provide an alternative that can be used).

    A few years ago I worked in an open-plan office block (nightmare!), with enclosed toilets with automatic mist-spraying air ‘freshener’. I would gag if I didn’t hold my nose while in there – not easy to pull up jeans after with one hand! – and would also be more likely to develop a migraine (compared with the days I worked out of office). My female colleagues were consulted, and were happy to have the air freshener removed. Another firm working next door to us (and sharing the same toilets) were not happy, though (even though the reason for the request had been explained…). The caretaker of the office block was more helpful / understanding, though, and provided me with four ‘flavours’ of his stock of air fresheners for me to test, in case one was less offensive than the others. (This proved to be the case, and he only used the apple-scented one in the Ladies after that.)

    (*NB This *is* relevant here because using toilet facilities before, during and after any meeting / training session. And having my senses bombarded by sounds/smells can make all the difference to whether or not I can concentrate at, participate in and process/remember information from a session.)

    Like

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