For people with autism, or 1 in 100 of every community, participation in events can pose a huge array of challenges and may, at times, be more a source of stress than enjoyment. They are busy, socially intensive environments, which often we go to out of routine, and these factors can pose barriers to individuals and families affected by autism enjoying a good day out.
Here are some guidelines kindly supplied by the team at www.asiam.ie which you may wish to take into consideration for your event to make it more sensory friendly. Don’t forget to include relevant information when you are posting your event on InspireMe Ireland.ie to ensure that if you have made your event sensory-friendly it is clearly identifiable to all.
Training for staff
A key first step in becoming more Autism friendly is ensuring that your staff understand the condition. As the condition is invisible it can be particularly challenging to identify and support people with the condition. Staff might assume a lot of expertise would be required to be “autism friendly” but very small changes in systems and attitude, can make an enormous difference.
So, what challenges might a person with Autism have.
Entertainment venues can be extremely busy environments, with lots going on in terms of crowds, noises, smells, lighting and textures. People with Autism often struggle with sensory integration, this means they can be, at a given time, over or under sensitive to their sensory surroundings. Some may have particular noises, smells, visuals, textures or tastes which they cannot bear or that they really like e.g a person may find bright or flashing lights or loud music difficult to cope with.
♦ Social Skills
Entertainment venues are highly social environments. Social skills are often an area which people with autism struggle with and this may pose challenges. A customer may be highly anxious in the social situation of having to make conversation or knowing how to interact with their group, e.g. attending a child’s birthday party, or other customers. They may seem very distant, aloof or blunt but in fact this could be due to their discomfort in a particular social situation or could be how they communicate with other people typically e.g. very matter of fact in terms of conversation. Another challenge that may arise is a customer with autism may be very keen to interact with others but may not know where to begin or what level of interaction is appropriate or inappropriate. Not knowing how to approach other customers and join in can lead to tension and isolation from other customers at times.
Routine is very important for many people, changes in routine could impact how they can cope in an entertainment venue. If a person with autism goes somewhere new this can be a stressful experience, especially if they have not had times to prepare or do not know what to expect e.g. a family deciding to go to the cinema at the last minute and visiting a new cinema. Alternatively, if a person with autism is used to going to a particular entertainment venue every week and something changes in that environment e.g. staff member having day off, change in layout / format etc. this could lead to deep anxiety as they may no longer feel secure in what is happening. By helping families to prepare for a visit and keeping frequent customers posted on any planned changes, you can make life easier for all involved!
When things are not very clear or an unexpected situation arises, an autistic person can become anxious. The more anxious a person with autism is, the more challenging it is for them to enjoy themselves. That is why it is crucial that clear communication and reasonable adaptations are provided to a customer to benefit interactions for both customer and staff
♦ Concentration / Hyperactivity
People with Autism may find it difficult to concentrate on one task for a lengthy period of time or to sit still / not run around. This can make going to seated event very challenging as it may be difficult for a person with autism to retain their attention on one task, especially in an environment that is very busy and full of distractions. Having frequent breaks and opportunities to move around are very important for those with Autism, as well as breaking up tasks into smaller chunks or smaller games to keep a person’s mind occupied!
At times people with Autism may display challenging behaviour, this is not a customer being difficult but rather a product of the person with the condition being unable to communicate their frustration or cope with their environment. It is important to defer to the family or the people a person is with, should this occur as they will best understand how to appropriately support the person.
Many families affected by autism do not get to enjoy an afternoon or evening out at an entertainment venue, often because they are very conscious of their child’s challenges or behaviour and are concerned that people will judge them, they won’t be able to relax or that they feel they will disrupt other customers. Venues that can help families relax and feel they can be themselves can make a very positive contribution to the life of a family and also access a lucrative market!
Visual Aids for Preparation
Develop a pack, which can be downloaded online, that enables customers to prepare for their visit to your premises – include a 360-degree tour and images of the venue, facilities, car park, bathroom, staff, dishes and drink. Additionally, provide information around the procedure for booking / getting a ticket, arriving at the venue, how the service operates, what to expect and any rules the venue may have. This will enable individuals and families prepare for the trip.
Dedicated Viewing / Enjoyment Times
A great way to allow individuals and families affected by autism to enjoy your event, hassle free, is to provide a dedicated time or day for families with a person with autism to access your facility exclusively. You can make the space more sensory friendly by turning down lights and music, make sure staff are well trained in understanding the needs of the customers with Autism and allow families to enjoy themselves without feeling self-conscious.
Can you provide a clearly identifiable “quiet area” at your venue? This might be a small section cordoned off or a little room to one side away from all the noise and people. This might seem like a small gesture but is a great support for individuals and families who do experience distress while they are out. It will allow a person to get away from a particular situation, cool down and collect themselves without having to leave, this can be especially good if there is loud music playing or if something happens, e.g. losing a game or a change in routine.
Here are some examples of how the organisers of a conference made their event sensory friendly.
Early and Quiet registration areas to reduce anxiety for people who have difficulty in communication in busy places.
Quiet rooms for people to use during the day.
Clear signage with plenty of clearly identifiable volunteers (e.g. in high-vis jackets) to physically direct during transitions to workshops etc.
A clear photographic Social Story of the venue. (Pictures of the venue as you walk through)
Quiet dining area to allow people to eat in a quiet setting and avoid the difficult social interaction often expected at conferences or events.
Signage on the hand dryers in the bathrooms to warn people not to turn them on if someone else has a sensory difficulty.
Please visit the website www.asiam.ie for excellent resources about Autism. Be sure to mention any measures you have taken to accommodate people with autism on your listings on this site, to enable those who would benefit from them to find you.