What A Truly Inclusive Event, and Society, Looks Like


The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) annual gala in November (reference article link above) is a very good example of how a truly inclusive event and/or autism event should look like. Just to point out a few features/attributed.

1. Colour-coded badges for Communication Preferences

Autistics have differing personalities; some love to talk to everybody (or for some, like me, is because I yearn for company and friendship), some prefer to stick to only those they know, while others prefer to be alone.

"But isn't that the same for everyone?" "Some non-autistics may prefer to be alone too". Well, there is more to that than meets the eye. It is not merely a matter of preference for us. It is due to some inherent autism traits or challenges. For example, those who prefer to be alone might need that to find solititude and calmness from the sensory overload and social anxiety/stresses. I even heard stories of autistics who, being overwhelmed with social stress from some social events, had to end up leaving abruptly without warning or even saying goodbye to the host. For those who love talking, it could be a way of self-expression, energy release, adrenalin rush or simply longing for companionship which one might perhaps have been deprived of in one's earlier years.

Thus, at an autism event, such colour-coded badges to differentiate autistics into three categories:
1) those who are happy to be approached by anyone
2) those who wish to stick to only people they know,
3) those who don't wish to talk to anyone
Truly helps the autistics to have a meaningful event, to feel included and not judged, to feel respected for one's preferences and needs.

At the Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC) 2019, an international conference convened by autism organisations in Australia and hosted in Singapore for the first time, a same method was used for autistics. I chose the green badge to denote I am happy to be approached by anyone. If this were 5 -10 years ago, I probably would pick the yellow badge to denote that I wish to stick to people I know. When I was first diagnosed 9 years ago, even those whom I thought I trusted enough to tell them about my autism, still introduced me to NEW people WITHOUT warning. At best, I did not appreciate it. At worse, I was upset. "Next time, warn me first!", I would say. I guess society has a lot more to learn about how to be inclusive, built upon empathy, understanding and acceptance

2. Sensory Issues taken care of

The participants substituted clapping with flapplause, knowing that the former would cause sensory overload for autistics. Great! Afterall, it does not make sense to brand it as an autism event if the environment is not suitable for autistics, isn't it? It is like holding a Women event with an environment that is not suited for women.

Playing with stim toys and going to quiet room was a norm at the event. Likewise at APAC 2019 there was a quiet room if autistics need to go there to take a break from sensory overload, social stress, stress of presenting, or whatever the case may be. Another one was the Autistic Social Space, a place people like me would love to go so I can talk non-stop to other autistics, making me feel like I am with my tribe in our 'territory'.

In contrast, in Singapore I had attended inclusion events where there is so much noise, crowd and bright lights. While I personally have no issues handling that, I feel for my autistic counterparts who find these too much of a sensory overload. The annual Purple Parade is a great iconic event here to promote inclusion and celebrating abilities of special needs people. I have been happy supporting it every year. But these are areas that has received constructive feedback which I feel the Purple Parade committee can and should take very seriously, to improve the event to better promote greater inclusion in practical ways, which is the core spirit and heartbeat of the event in the first place.

When I signed up for a inclusion running event together with a social enterprise claiming to serve/help special needs children, the way the coordinator communicated with the group clearly showed he forgotten autistic adults' presence/participation (he admitted himself when I feedback to him privately) and thought it was only parents. When I attended their concert, it didn't feel truly inclusive of autistics at all. The information leaflet had NO directions of how to get there and NO visual images for those who need visual aid. All there was is road name, and bus stop. It was held in a University campus, by saying "<University's name>" theatre hall" or something like that, how do they expect people to know how to get there when the campus is so big? Especially for autistics who may have visual sensory dysfunction and/or bad with directions. When I went in, I was super disappointed to discover the seat I and my friend, as fellow autistics, were allocated (I was given a free ticket by the enterprise, apparently) corner seats near the front with poor view of the performance. Full of noise and bright lights, it makes a perfect environment to cause autistics an unpleasant experience, sensory overload, meltdowns, or having to leave abruptly due to the sheer overwhelming sensory stimulus.

3. Accomodations for the autistic Performers/Presenters

For instance, one presenter gave a presentation via a robot because she could not travel due to her disability.



All in all, events in Western countries have shown good examples of has events that strive to be inclusive in spirit and in substance, and not just in name. Singapore is relatively new to this journey towards inclusion. But the journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step. Perhaps Singapore has taken the first step, or half the first step. I urge the whole of society to take more steps, learning from the countries who have gone ahead of us, towards inclusion. Improving events like the Purple Parade and those by social enterprises can and should be among the baby steps.

NO one is asking for 100% perfection or to accommodate every single disabled person, neither is anyone saying that failure to accommodate even one person = failure.

But we are just asking for the basics to be looked into. An autism event should look, at the minimum, take care or autistic needs like differing levels of comfort of socialising, sensory issues, sense of direction. I had organised autism events before albeit on a smaller scale, at localccommunity level. I had always ensured directions are spelled out clearly and with visual aid, and advised participants ahead of time of sensory issues. At a Christmas gathering we had, anyone could do what they needed to, to help themselves with sensory issues, from flapping hands, to stimming, to putting on earphones etc., many of such actions are otherwise deemed socially inappropriate or ill mannered in the eyes of the public. Sadly, such safe environments/events here are few and far between. 

In the grander scheme of things, ASAN is one of the parties who have set the example on what it means to live out the NEURODIVERSITY MOVEMENT, something we should just not accept, but appreciate and celebrate. The world needs ALL kinds of minds. "The Pursuit of Normality is the ultimate sacrifice of Potential" (Faith Jegede)

It is a long journey ahead, and we face tough issues along the way, such as people's resistance to change, and certain sensitive topics that spark/trigger existing disagreements between various stakeholders (read the article I cited, URL link above, which explains some disagreements between advocates and therapists/professionals, for example).  How can everyone come to some consensus or middle ground or hybrid approaches for the greater good of everyone?

I don't have all the answers. No one has. But what I know we need is for autistic advocates to continue advocating and educating and not lose steam at it, year in year out, for people with-IN and with-OUT (people outside of) the special needs space to never stop learning because life never stops teaching... learning how to be accepting, to embrace differences and celebrate diversity that flows from every being no matter how divergent they are, built upon foundations of universal principles and character, like kindness, compassion, acceptance, empathy, contribution, service and the like. Together we can make a world a better place.


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