How not to do an autism conference: response from the NAS


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:

Dear Paula,

 

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?

 

Best wishes,

I have replied accepting their offer to be involved in any way to help make future conferences a better experience for autistic delegates.

How not to do an autism conference


Reflections on the NAS Autism and Mental Health conference 2017

It’s now two days since I attended the National Autistic Society’s ‘Autism and Mental Health’ conference at the Hilton in Reading. The event was attended by around 400 people and starred Tony Attwood and Wenn Lawson alongside other speakers. I was really looking forward to learning more about autistic mental health, but came away disappointed on many levels. Here’s why:

The venue was easy to get to and I arrived early as the pre-conference documentation indicated that parking was limited and that the alternative was parking further away and getting a bus. I struggle to use buses, they make me very anxious and to get through the day I needed to do as much as possible to reduce the avoidable anxieties.

  • Please consider using venues with sufficient parking.

The conference was held on the ground floor of the hotel, but it was poorly laid out and with insufficient signage. The bulk of the space was shared with other hotel users and it was not clear how to use the space. Hot drink preparation areas were at one end of a vast reception area and the only available seating was in the hotel bar at the other end.

  • Please consider providing layout plans.
  • Please consider delegates who have mobility and coordination difficulties.

Toilets, drinks and food all resulted in huge queues. Some queuing is inevitable at large events but this was unacceptable. The lunch queues were ridiculous and completely took over the space, making it easy to become overwhelmed and trapped. I suspected this might happen and got to lunch early, but was disappointed again at lack of signposting/labelling. It wasn’t clear what was available as food was spread across two spaces. Sandwiches were not labelled and many contained unidentified beige lumps in unidentified beige gloop. I was glad I’d brought snacks with me.

  • Please consider an alternative quiet area for lunch for your autistic/disabled delegates.
  • Please provide clear instructions about food arrangements. Providing a menu in advance would be helpful so we know what to expect.
  • Please provide food near the seating area, ideally with proper height dining tables, to support delegates with mobility and coordination difficulties.
  • Please choose a venue with more toilets and lunch logistics.

In the main conference room seats were tightly packed and with little space. Like many autistic people, I struggle with proximity to other people, have a need to move/fidget and often need to leave mid-way for the toilet, for some space, a break and to unwind for a bit before returning. I did ask to sit at the back near the door when I arrived, but having to explain a need for a particular seat (or any other adjustment) in front of others is never very dignified. I also had no way of reserving a suitable seat and struggled in later sessions to find suitable space.

  • Please consider creating priority seating for autistic/disabled delegates to meet our needs.

I was astonished that the NAS staff used a bell to encourage everyone to move onto the next session. It’s Autism 101 that many of us have sensory sensitivities so this was horrific, it was only years of conditioning that stopped me covering my ears and swearing at the bell-ringer. The organisers knew that there were autistic delegates (and at least one autistic speaker), but did this anyway. It was shockingly insensitive and very poor modelling of good practice… As always at these events, I was surprised how many delegates were heavily perfumed and I do hope they refrain from this in their day jobs.

  • Please consider your delegates’ sensory issues and please ask your non-autistic delegates to respect this too.

There was a quiet room provided which I eventually found, and while it was useful while I had it to myself, there were no guidelines on how to use it when sharing the space. I didn’t know if quiet meant silent, whether it was ok to to eat or drink in there, if ignoring other people in there was expected or rude. I abandoned it when the ambiguity made it more stressful being there than not.

  • Please provide some guidance on the use of the quiet room.

Providing a quiet room is not enough to ameliorate the challenges of the conference for autistic/disabled delegates. More thought needs to go into making the whole event inclusive and making adjustments and supports intrinsic. The NAS should be leading the field in this, modelling good autism practice in everything it does.

  • Please seek guidance from autistic conference speakers and delegates on how to make the whole experience better for us. The conference details listed autistic people among those who should attend, please make it easier for us to do this.

A woman next to me was struggling to hear a speaker (as was I but as usual I thought it was just me!) and asked for the sound to be adjusted/raised. The tech guy’s response was along the lines of “there’s nothing I can do, I can hear it fine”. This is very poor practice, and exactly the sort of thing many disabled people experience in day to day life. There may well not have been anything he could do, but his blasé response to our difficulties was not in the spirit of inclusion.

  • Please ask conference staff not to dismiss delegate requests.

I was disappointed that there weren’t more autistic speakers, I believe that Wenn Lawson was the only autistic speaker. It would have been helpful to have some more personal experiences, especially as many in the audience were, or were working with, parents of autistic children. As a parent of a child struggling with their mental health it is always helpful to hear from older autistics who have been through some of the very serious mental health problems being talked about. As parents we need to know it can get better. The day also seemed to largely focus on autistic people without intellectual/language disabilities, this wasn’t made clear in the programme and was disappointing.

  • Please include more autistic speakers in your conferences.
  • Please don’t forget that autistic people with intellectual, cognitive and language difficulties also experience mental health problems.

The worst part of the day was Tony Attwood. I was so looking forward to hearing him speak. His books were instrumental in giving me the knowledge I needed to get my son assessed and diagnosed when it felt like nobody else believed me. Clearly he is very knowledgeable and has a good understanding of the Asperger-type presentation of autism. But his talks were chock-full of jokes at our expense. It was very much an outsider looking in at the autistics and their funny little ways, oh how amusing we are, oh how the audience laughed at his quips about suicide, special interests, IQ, virginity and robots.

Attwood’s presentations came across as exploitative and offensive. He succeeded in othering autistic people and using us as the butt of his jokes. I now know that he has form for this and considers joking about autistic people a form of neurotypical social bonding, performing a sort of disparagement humour to bolster his material. It was like a trip in time back to the 70s where Alf Garnett discovers autism.

It really is not acceptable for a person in a position of power and influence to exploit a vulnerable and marginal group to raise laughs. It is surely unprofessional to talk about your clients and service users in such a disparaging way. I would guess that the majority of the audience were professionals. I would hate for any professional to talk about me or my son in this way.

I wonder if the time has come where people like Attwood, who were key figures in increasing understanding of the autism spectrum, but who are not autistic, need to step aside, accept their success, but let us speak for ourselves. There are autistic psychologists, researchers and writers (and many other things besides) who should be promoted and platformed. If we can say it for ourselves we do not need a neurotypical to say it for us.

  • Please produce some guidance for your speakers about respecting the subjects of their material.
  • Please don’t book speakers who mock and ridicule autistic people.
  • Please let us speak for ourselves when we can. If you are booking a big name speaker to attract participants let us share the platform.

To end, I think the NAS do some fantastic work, but it feels like there’s a disconnect between the different parts. The conference team need to take on board the work of the campaigning team. The NAS is the biggest autism charity in the UK and it needs to show everyone else how to get things right. Whether it’s training, supporting, housing or holding events for and about autistic people, it needs to demonstrate best practice.

I would like to thank Lucy Sanctuary for her fantastic talk about the benefits of speech and language therapy for mental health difficulties. Thanks also to her daughter who spoke to us via a film clip.

Please read my next post to see the reply from the NAS 🙂