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.