Today I received a response from the NAS conference team following my blog post raising concerns about last week’s Autism and Mental Health conference. It is copied here in full with the writer’s permission:
Thanks again for your email and apologies I didn’t get back to you yesterday as planned. It’s been really useful for us to have this feedback and to think about how we can make our conferences more autism friendly.
We will certainly be incorporating many of the suggestions you have made into the logistics for our one-day conferences, such as providing lay out plans and quiet lunch areas. So thank you for raising these points. Some of your suggestions are part of our current practice, but we realise that we need to do more to ensure this practice is properly publicised and followed at all our conferences.
With 400 people at the Mental Health conference, we recognise that crowding was an issue. We rely on our venues to tell us how many people their rooms can accommodate and, in this case, we believe that their estimate of what the spaces could take were overly optimistic. We will be aware of this when using this venue in future and limit the numbers able to attend accordingly. We will also give feedback to the hotel in this regard. We understand that the large numbers attending led to long waits and crowds at lunch and to use the toilets and we do apologise for that.
With regard to the other points you have raised:
1) We will now put a much more spaced out row of chairs at the back of the room and will ensure this is reserved for autistic delegates who need space around them.
We already offer to reserve specific seats for delegates who need it (and there were several who reserved seats at the conference last week). The ‘special access requirements’ section on our registration forms is where delegates can ask to reserve a particular seating arrangement or for other specific needs (such as large print documentation, etc).We will now make this clearer on the form.
2) Our standard practice is to ensure food is properly labelled at refreshment breaks and lunchtime, but we apologise that this didn’t happen at last week’s conference. We will check that this has been done at future conferences.
3) Until now, we have not had specific rules for our quiet room. This is because we didn’t want to restrict people from using the room in the way that they need to, in order to feel most comfortable. Following your comments, we will now survey autistic delegates and ask whether there is a preference for clear rules about how to use the quiet room. If delegates tell us they would prefer a set of rules, it would be great if you and other autistic people could work with us to help decide what those rules should be. Could you let me know if you’d want to help with this?
4) Parking/ and more lunch and toilet areas:
When holding events for such a large number of people, unfortunately it is rare to find venues with more parking available than the hotel where the conference was held. However, as mentioned in your blog, we did warn people who needed to drive to arrive early to ensure they got a parking space, and also to encourage people who didn’t need to drive to consider using public transport.
5) In regards to sensory issues, we will no longer use the bell to signal the start of sessions.
With regards to the points you raise about Tony Attwood and his inappropriate use of humour.
We are very sorry that Professor Attwood’s presentations were upsetting to you and that this contributed to the distress you experienced at the conference. We send all our speakers an ‘’acceptable language’’ document prior to conferences. This was developed for us by a group of autistic adults and we ask that speakers respect the guidelines outlined in the document. However, the document does not currently address humour, and we will look at incorporating a section regarding humour into the guidelines, using the very excellent open letter Kate Fox drafted for guidance https://katefoxwriter.wordpress.com/2017/05/
Once again, we are sorry about your difficult experiences at the conference. We really do appreciate you taking the time to write to us: it’s been very helpful for us to have this feedback.
Going forward, if you would be interested and are available it would be great to have your input on the quiet room rules, and the new ‘humour’ section in the acceptable language guidance document. Would that be of interest to you?
I have replied accepting their offer to be involved in any way to help make future conferences a better experience for autistic delegates.