When you perceive and interact with the world in a way that is vastly different to the majority of the population, that world can be extremely overwhelming, confusing, and difficult to navigate. Just leaving the house can be exhausting, and yet, small changes to the environment or people’s attitudes yield huge improvements in accessibility.
Through my own experiences as an autistic person, I know how challenging it can be to go out somewhere. This is to the extent that I do not just avoid places I know to be too overwhelming or not set up for my needs, but also places I simply cannot find enough information about. Places that may well have ultimately been fine, if only I had known what to expect. Through the training I’ve provided to various establishments, it is clear that many people fail to appreciate just how much that little bit of extra information or thought would go towards improving an autistic person’s experience at a venue, or indeed, their ability to visit at all!
So, without further ado, here are 5 key ways you can make your venue that much more accessible to autistic visitors.
(1) Help us know what to expect.
It is a myth that autistic people cannot cope with change. What we can struggle to cope with is the unexpected. Help us to prepare and know what to expect and suddenly change gets a whole lot less daunting. We need to know where we are going, what it looks like and exactly what to do once we get there.
For example, for some autistic people, not knowing how a café is run will cause so much anxiety they cannot come in. Do they just find a table or wait to be seated? Do they order at the till or is there table service? If they order at the till, do they pay there and then or do they pay at the end? Put this information on your website and social media and have a sign on the door.
We need to be able to research somewhere before we visit. On your website and social media, provide:
- Lots of pictures of what your venue looks like – from the outside and the inside.
- Maps where appropriate.
- Make it clear whether or not there are toilets and exactly where these are located.
- Step by step information about what to do on arrival, where and how to buy tickets, where to go, etc.
- Food menus (including listed allergens) if you serve food.
(2) Create a sensory friendly environment.
Being autistic means having a sensory system that works differently. We do not process or filter sensory information in the same way as others, and we often experience sensory input at a much higher or sometimes lower intensity. This can get incredibly overwhelming and lead to distress. For lots more information on sensory overload, check out Georgina’s amazing blog post here.
Here we have broken suggestions down into the 8 different senses – yes there are 8!
- Avoid harsh, bright lighting, especially fluorescent lights. Many autistic individuals can actually see fluorescent lights flickering and hear them buzzing, both of which are painful.
- Avoid bright colours, especially multiple or clashing colours. Instead go for more muted tones.
- Avoid clutter; this includes things like busy fabrics.
- Include soft furnishings to dampen echoes.
- Allow the use of ear plugs, ear defenders and noise cancelling headphones.
- Keep background music to a low volume. If you think it is pretty quiet, take it a notch lower.
- Have visual signs warning of any alarms that might go off and information about what to do.
- Avoid raising your voice.
- Try to lessen the effects of venue specific noises. For example, the sound of the coffee machine may be intolerable to many autistic people. Can you provide seating as far away as possible, tucked around a corner?
- Avoid air fresheners, scented candles, incense, strong smelling perfume, and harsh smelling cleaning products.
- Have signs warning of areas that might be particularly smelly, e.g., a specific animal’s enclosure at a zoo.
- Create designated spaces for eating away from other patrons.
For some autistic people, touch can be uncomfortable or even painful.
- Create alternative waiting areas or allow for queue-jump passes. Claustrophobia, social phobia, and bombardment from all the other senses aside, the fear of being bumped into or jostled around in a queue can be extreme for some individuals.
- If you absolutely need to touch someone, e.g., to guide them through a crowd, always ask permission, give warning, and explain where and why you will be touching them and what you are going to do.
- Certain textures can be intolerable whilst others are calming. This varies from person to person so provide variety.
- If your venue sells food, make sure there are plenty of options available and be open to customisations such as no mayo in a sandwich, completely plain pasta, no garnishes, beans in a separate bowl on the side, etc.
- If you would not usually allow visitors to bring and consume their own food on site, allow autistic visitors, and those with medical conditions and severe allergies, to be exempt from this rule. Make this information available on your website and on signs in your venue.
Proprioception, vestibular and interoception
These are the 3 lesser-known senses that bring the total to 8. Proprioception is the ability to know where all the bits of your body are in space (without looking!), vestibular is all about your sense of balance, and interoception is all about the ability to recognise and interpret internal body signals. This includes things like pain, hunger, thirst, and needing the toilet.
- Create “room for manoeuvre” – no unnecessary obstructions, tripping hazards or sharp edges!
- Somewhat conversely, spaces that are too large can be distressing for some autistic people. If the walls are too far away, it can be harder to recognise where your body is in space – which is a very disconcerting feeling! Some individuals may need to pace around the edge of the room and touch the walls or furniture to understand their position in the space.
- Where possible, install grab bars and handrails in places such as queuing areas.
- For individuals who may not be able to recognise that they need the toilet until they really, really need the toilet, clear signage to the nearest facilities is especially important.
- Where possible, have a row of gender neutral, self-contained toilet facilities rather than multiple cubicles in a single room. This serves multiple functions: it allows us to avoid the terrifying noise of others using the hand dryer; it creates a secure enclosed space to retreat to which lessens anxiety, and it creates gender-neutral spaces for those who are trans and/or non-binary and would find this more comfortable. (Autistic individuals are statistically more likely to be trans and/or non-binary than the non-autistic population.)
- If spatially and financially possible, install a Changing Places facility. These are fully accessible toilets, which in addition to the grab rails and emergency alarm of a regular accessible toilet, contain an adult sized, height adjustable changing bench, a hoist, a curtain or screen, and non-slip flooring.
- At large, busy venues, try and create a calm, quiet area for retreating to when it all gets a bit much. Whilst a separate room is ideal, this could simply be a partially screened off area of the room.
- Allow for escape plans! For example, make it possible to leave the venue and come back in without having to buy another ticket.
- Signs should be clear, well placed and contain a pictorial element as well as text.
(3) Be mindful of the language and symbology you use when accommodating us.
Whilst it might seem relatively trivial, there is a right way and a wrong way to refer to autistic people and our needs. Do it the wrong way on your website and social media, and it indicates to us that you are probably not as ‘autism friendly’ as you might like to believe. Do it the wrong way, and it suggests that you have been sourcing your information from places that are not truly listening to the autistic community. So, what is the right way?
- Use identity first language (autistic) rather than person first language (with/has/have autism). This is what an overwhelming majority of the autistic community prefers. This is just one example. Eric Knows has a blog post in the works about the importance of language when it comes to disability which we’ll link to when it’s available.
- In a similar vein, avoid the use of the puzzle piece symbol when referencing autism. This symbol was chosen without the input of actually autistic individuals and is considered by many to be outright offensive. Instead, opt for the infinity symbol.
(4) Accommodate our communication differences.
Autistic people communicate differently to non-autistic people. This might be very obvious in an individual who is non-speaking and may use gesture, symbols, or text to speech apps, or not at all obvious, for example, in those of us who mask our differences in order to fit in. We are typically literal thinkers and can sometimes struggle to derive meaning from context. We tend to need more time to process information and often have auditory processing differences as well.
- Be clear and direct. Say exactly what you mean and avoid sarcasm and idioms.
- Allow us time to process what is being said and to formulate a response.
- Don’t give us too much information in one go, and only ask us one question at a time.
- If you require a more elaborate answer, don’t ask a yes or no question and expect to receive anything beyond a literal ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
- If we need you to repeat something, repeat the whole sentence, not just the end of it.
- Where possible, provide information in writing. That way we can process it in our own time and refer back to it later.
- Let us communicate in whatever way is most comfortable for us and do not act as though this is an inconvenience. If we need to write out what we want to say, give us the time to do that.
- Many autistics will struggle with knowing how to ask for help or be too scared to. Be proactive! If you think we might be struggling, start that conversation for us. E.g., if a customer flinches every time you turn the coffee machine on, go over and ask if they would like to move somewhere a bit quieter.
(5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly… embrace difference!
Probably the biggest deterrent to going out somewhere when you are autistic, or have autistic family members, is a fear of judgement and lack of understanding from other people. Knowing that the place we are visiting actually understands what it is to be autistic and embraces that, makes a world of difference. Awareness is not enough, we want acceptance!
In the words of a young, autistic mentee at The I CAN Network:
“Awareness means you know I’m here. Acceptance means you’re happy to see me.”
We know that not all accommodations are possible at every venue, but many of these changes are easy to make and will go a long way towards making the world that bit more accessible.
Hopefully, this information has given you lots of ideas for how to make your venue more welcoming for autistic people.
Let us know in the comments below what changes your venue will be making!