Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music
An organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts.
“Something’s wrong!” my mom cried. “My headphones malfunctioned! My video sounds blurry!”
I put on her new, fancy headphones and watched the video. It was the singer in the plaza. It sounded crystal clear. I had been there.
“What do you mean it’s blurry?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of noise! It didn’t sound like that in real life!”
“Um, that’s exactly what it sounded like in real life,” I retorted, frustrated with her imaginary tech issue. My mom looked hurt by my dismissal of her problem. This wasn’t going well.
And then it dawned on me: Perhaps arguing was futile, because we hadn’t heard the same thing in the first place. In real life, my mom had experienced a soulful musician playing her favorite songs amidst an ambient backdrop. I, on the other hand, experienced a cacophonous soundscape of live music plus wind, laughter, chimes, talking, traffic, footsteps, car engines, drive-by radios, overlapping accents, multiple languages, paper cups and plastic spoons colliding with metal trash cans, and more.
Thanks to high-quality headphones, my mom could now hear the noisy background, too. But her rude awakening was my realtime reality, and likely that of many other autistic folks.
Hi again, colleague, I’m glad you’re here. In my last post, “An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague,” I referred to the music world’s “unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility,” gave you a primer on autistic etiquette, and introduced this four-part series as a “no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter.” I alluded to my fear of asserting my own needs and declared it time for all arts professionals to improve autistic accessibility in our concerts, rehearsals, and interactions.
Today, I present you with the heart of this series: an organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts. These tips aren’t just for organizations and presenters; they are also for musicians, students, teachers, and other music-adjacent allies. If you are not autistic, consider this required coursework.
The reason I began this post with an anecdote is twofold: 1) It nicely illustrates some of the sensory processing discrepancies between allistic and autistic people, and 2) It prioritizes autistic stories. As a conscientious ally, it is critical to listen to autistic stories, learn about our diverse lived experiences, and consider how our needs may coincide with or differ from your own. Without that context, even the best list of tips couldn’t help you.
My own guide will be rife with gaps and even contradictory information that another autistic person may not agree with. As I mentioned in the last post, “if you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person.” I bring my own set of experiences, identities, and privileges to the table (queer, non-binary, second-generation, biracial person of color, Cambodian, Chinese, and Greek, American citizen, thin, able to drive, sighted, hearing, physically able, financially secure family, elite college education, etc.), and you will have to adjust to your audience’s particular needs. I am not an autism expert; I am merely a student of my own autistic experience.
I came up with the acronym SCALE to help you remember the five main themes in this guide to improving autistic accessibility. You will eventually forget most of the tips, but if you can remember the main themes (SCALE), you may have an easier time filling in the blanks and adding your own points.
S – sensory needs
Sensory needs are one of the most discussed hallmarks of the autistic experience. Many autistic people experience sensory hypersensitivity, resulting in the magnified perception of sound, smell, touch, taste, and other senses. This overstimulation can be not only painful but dangerous, causing disorientation, loss of balance, shutdown, meltdown, and other cognitive or physical impairments. On the flip side, many autistic folks experience hyposensitivity, which may cause us to seek extreme, additional sensory inputs for stimulation.
Given that it is neither practical nor feasible to simultaneously accommodate all autistic sensory needs at the same time, what, then should you do? In my experience, err on the side of reducing sensory input. As the writer of the Autisticality blog says: “It’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable…In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous.”
- Be conscious of the venue’s lighting, temperature, acoustics, seating, and restrooms. Any of the following could be devastating for an autistic person:
- Fluorescent lights, strobe lights, very bright or very dim lights.
- A reverberant, cavernous space, which can make sound bounce off the walls, especially when there’s a crowd or amplified sound. I feel physically sick from being in spaces like this and certainly cannot handle conversation.
- Restrooms with extremely loud flushes or hand dryers.
- Loud music, bass, and people. Be mindful of appropriate sound levels.
- Air conditioning and heating. Not just the temperature but also the noise of the units, the blowing sensation, and the way that impacts the room, sound, and individual seats.
- While it’s best to provide a scent-free space whenever possible, at least take care not to spray or otherwise adorn the space with scents. If there is a critical, artistic reason to include a scent, make sure guests receive a warning in advance.
- Specific musical sounds and extended techniques can be jarring for an autistic person—including high-pitched registers (violin, coloratura soprano, etc), harsh static, sound walls, and crunchy attacks. However, I am not advocating for the removal or banning of these sounds in your composition, programming, performing, and classroom efforts! As with everything discussed here, we autistic people do not agree on what bothers us, and removing one thing can be taking away another’s greatest pleasure. As a violinist and 21st-century composer myself, I understand how tricky these needs are to negotiate, and rest assured that you’ll never manage it perfectly. But if you can provide warnings to audience members in advance, that communication can go a long way.
- Limit competing noise. If we are watching a concert and meant to focus our attention on the performer, be mindful of additional sonic inputs as much as possible. These can distract an autistic person. Examples:
- Outside conversations
- Music from other rooms bleeding in
- Loud A/C, slamming doors
- Buzzing speakers.
- The same rule applies to classrooms, meetings, and even social interactions. I have skipped class and left concerts many times due to jarring, competing noise making me anxious.
- List the potential sensory triggers in advance. If I know one part of the program will be too loud for me, I can step out for that part, rather than suffering in my seat with no way out and possibly experiencing a meltdown.
- On the flip side, consider offerings things to stoke sensory pleasure! Not only can this increase an autistic person’s enjoyment, but it may also help to soothe us. Stimming is a term used to describe the “self-stimulating” things autistic people do to cope with external stimuli. I recently went to an event that offered fuzzy pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for people to use in their seats as wanted or needed. It was delightful, and certainly helped soothe my anxiety during the intense discussion.
C – cognitive needs, clarity, and communication
Cognitive differences—that is, differences in mental processes that encompass skills like attention, memory, executive functioning, decision making, and awareness—are another predominant marker of the autistic vs. allistic experience. Cognitive needs are tricky to illustrate but still require devoted attention and effort from allies. Because it can be hard or inappropriately taxing for an autistic person to explain why a particular aspect of something is difficult, allistic people are often left to either take our word for it or dismiss it. This puts us in the position of having to prove our impairment or the severity of our need to an allistic gatekeeper. Don’t do that. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing, and ableist. Never make assumptions about another person’s cognitive needs.
So how can you validate the cognitive needs of autistic people and make your efforts more autistic-friendly? Communication and clarity are your friends! Here are some basics:
- WE LOVE (and need) DETAILS! Include as many details as you can, whenever you can. This goes for your concert invitations, announcements, and interactions. Information that’s extraneous or obvious to you may be crucial or non-obvious to an autistic person, and clarifying details can help us feel safer.
- Location: Share not only the address or name of the venue, but also directions, a map, parking instructions (including the cost), directions to the entrance, where the wheelchair-accessible entrance is, and how to find the specific room. The more photos and visual descriptions of the building, entrance, and room you can include, the better.
- Venue Specifics: Tell us what to expect.
- Is it wheelchair-accessible, both inside and out? Include whether some parts of the venue are accessible but not others, so folks can plan accordingly. It is incredibly important to communicate this info in advance.
- Will there be seating for fat people? Couches, benches, and other forms of sturdy, wide, armless seating can be more accommodating for fat people than flimsy fold-up chairs. Note: “fat” is not an insult, but these 11 fat-shaming phrases are. (Source: Nakeisha Campbell for The Body Is Not An Apology blog.)
- Restrooms: Provide gender-neutral restrooms. If the venue doesn’t have any, write “All-Gender Restroom” on a piece of paper and stick it to the door. Make sure that at least one gender-neutral bathroom is wheelchair accessible. Whatever the bathroom situation is, though, make sure to communicate in advance.
- Is anything banned, like food, drinks, or selfie sticks? Who can we contact if we need an exception? Will anything be for sale?
- Basic Protocol: Autistic folks do not always follow the same social conventions as others, nor do we innately understand the same “rules” as allistics. Try to provide any rules, implied rules, guidelines, dress code, and any other relevant information in advance.
- Examples of less-obvious things to communicate: Expected arrival time, how long parking usually takes, if we’ll be expected to check our coats or take off shoes, if seating is assigned or first-come-first-serve, if we are not supposed to clap between pieces, etc. (You will get better at learning what details are relevant as you practice.)
- Detailed schedule: For concerts, provide a program or communicate what the run of the show is. Include information about any pre or post-concert talks, break lengths, meet and greets, places for refreshments, etc. If you don’t know at the time of program printing, try offering a separate insert as guests enter.
- Tell us, for better or for worse: Is this a scent-free space with quiet areas, soft light, moderate temperature, and comfy seating? Great, please let us know in advance! We won’t know about all these good things if you don’t tell us. On the other hand, will there be harsh fluorescent lights? Does the room get hot and stuffy? Is there a part of the concert that gets extremely loud? Then, you must also let us know.
- Never omit information for fear of people not showing up. Every autistic person has a different concoction of needs and sensitivities, and while the information you share may cause one person to decline, it may cause another to attend. For example, I’m not bothered by most heat, so if I knew an event would get hot, I actually wouldn’t be deterred. But without factual, detailed information, we are left to our own guesswork, and I usually default to expecting the worst and skipping out.
- Being upfront about both positive and negative details can also help autistic people plan accordingly—i.e. bring earplugs, sunglasses, or dress in layers.
- A Complex Chain of Steps: Keep in mind that the cognitive processing of autistic people may cause us to consider each event or action as a complicated chain of micro-steps. For me, something as simple as getting a drink of water can send me in a stressful spiral, as I consider the potential aspects of the water, the steps I must navigate in order to get it, the short-term effects of hydration, whether I will bother other guests, whether it will impact my seat comfort or exit time, and more.
- When in doubt, make an announcement. If there any changes, do your best to communicate. Don’t take any understanding for granted.
- The cognitive (and sensory) barriers add up. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel relaxed at the beginning of an event and utterly discombobulated by the end.
- Check in with us. Autistic folks may not always speak up for themselves, due to hurdles with cognitive processing or fear of drawing negative attention.
- Just because someone hasn’t complained doesn’t mean you’re being accessible. Many autistic people feel uncomfortable complaining, have trouble explaining their needs, or are used to being brushed off. Moreover, if you haven’t put effort into your autistic accessibility, autistic folks may not have experienced one of your events in the first place.
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
No event will exist with perfect conditions for every autistic person, but something you can always do to help is provide assistance and aids. The more you know about autistic pain points, the better you will be able to anticipate needs.
- If the event will be loud or crowded, consider offering disposable earplugs. My music school provided earplug dispensers in all of the classrooms.
- Whenever you have aids to offer (earplugs, etc.), make sure these are either publicly or very obviously and easily available upon request. You could even try offering them to guests upon entering the building.
- Designate a space in the venue as a “quiet room,” “escape room,” or “sensory-friendly room.” An autistic person may get overstimulated, anxious, or experience other challenges during a concert, and it would be a relief to have a safe place to take a break.
- Provide language and communication aids. When screening a video, turn on closed captions. Many autistic people have trouble processing auditory language.
- If applicable, consider providing name tags — some autistic people struggle with reading and recognizing faces
- Many theme parks provide attraction and accessibility guides that list rides with sensory warnings, wheelchair accessible areas, baby-changing stations, and more. You could do a similar thing for your events, including gender-neutral bathrooms and other information.
- Offer (compassionate) personal assistance: Provide and make sure guests know of a compassionate, designated point person they can speak with if they have a concern. If your event can manage, consider having the point person check in with special guests throughout to offer anything or see how they’re doing. To be clear, I am not advocating that organizers visually pick out guests with “probably special needs.” But if someone has designated themselves as needing special assistance, or if they have already sought help at the event, then it may be nice.
L – language
Never underestimate the importance of affirming language. Our words and the mediums we use can signal (explicitly and implicitly) who is welcome in our presence and at our events.
- Do use affirming language. Autistic, autistic person, on the autistic spectrum, and uses a wheelchair are examples of generally appreciated terms.
- Avoid ableist language, including: handicapped, handicapable, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, gimp, stupid, dumb, weak, idiot, mentally challenged, mental problems.
- Avoid the phrase “differently abled.” Your intentions may be good, but many autistic and other disabled folks find it condescending. Unless a disabled person specifically requests otherwise, default to “disabled.”
- Ensure that you, your materials, announcements, and staff never use derogatory language, whether autism-specific or otherwise. This can immediately signal that your space isn’t aware, safe, or welcoming. But if you use affirming, inclusive language in most areas but aren’t great with autistic language yet, someone like me may give you a chance, as your overall inclusion gives me hope that you are willing to learn.
- Let go of the slurs and condescending phrases you’ve unknowingly grown used to (as many of us have) and learn affirming alternatives. This post on the Autistic Hoya blog about Ableist Terms and Alternatives is a good place to start on the ableism side of things.
- As mentioned in the “A” section, provide closed captions and other language aids when screening videos.
- Explicitly normalize the welcoming of autistic people and behaviors. This may seem small, but it can make a huge impact. It’s one thing to privately do things to make autistic folks feel safe, but if an autistic person feels like a secret exception in the larger context, it can be alienating. Example: If you have a sensory-friendly room available, tell everyone, and don’t make it awkward. Instead of saying “We have a sensory-friendly room available for guests with autism or other people in need of escaping this concert [insert audience chuckles], but seriously, most of the concert will be fine, unless you’re really sensitive,” try “We have a sensory-friendly room available in the back of this hall, which includes beanbags, toys, and quiet space. If you’d like to go in at any point, just go straight there, and a volunteer in a red vest will provide any assistance.”
E – expression and embodiment
One aspect of autism that cannot be erased is our unique way of embodied expression. As mentioned earlier, stimming is a natural response to emotions and other stimuli. It manifests in infinite ways, including waving arms, flapping hands, pacing, spinning, clapping, rubbing things, repeating words over and over, making noises, wiggling eyebrows up and down, and more.
Unfortunately, many autistic people are taught that their stimming is unacceptable, either explicitly (via behavior-changing “therapies,” admonishments, being teased,) or implicitly (being praised for “normal” behavior, etc.). This results in massive amounts of shame among some autistic individuals. The irony is, stimming is far from unhealthy, and stifling an autistic person’s ability to stim can actively harm us or lead us to meltdown. Stimming is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not harming anyone else, and we often use it to show excitement or cope with stress, negative emotions, cognitive dissonance, and sensory discomforts.
To accept an autistic person, you must accept stimming.
But it goes without saying: It is not always possible to encourage all forms of stimming simultaneously at every event. There will have to be some balance and negotiation. Here are some ideas:
- Can you allow areas for freer motion? Consider designating spaces for this, if not already available. The sensory-friendly room could be such a place. If your event is outdoors, or if it is casual, stimming should be acceptable regardless.
- Consider holding a special, dedicated event for autistic folks that includes ample space to move freely.
- This is NOT a substitute for making your regular events more accessible. In fact, many autistic people prefer to attend the general events.
- Many organizations already hold sensory-friendly events, but most of them are tailored toward children. While this is certainly valuable, keep in mind that autistic adults want welcoming programming too. When every “autism-friendly” concert, event, or activity is for kids, it sends a message that 1. You don’t see autistic adults or validate our existence, 2. We should have grown out of it, or 3. You don’t think we are monetizable.
- Do not ban or draw attention to specific behaviors that you may consider unusual, distracting, or rude. Not everyone will like this, but I do not recommend banning cell phones, fidget spinners, notebooks, or other things like that. If you do so, you may be removing a person’s accessibility aid, stimming aid, or self-soothing mechanism.
- Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that you absolutely must allow jumping jacks and cell phone use in the front row of your audience or classroom. After all, what would you do if an autistic person’s front-row jumping jacks were causing sensory distress for another autistic person? Point is, needs and civilities are a constant negotiation, and it will never be perfect. However, I’m willing to bet that autistic folks compensate and negotiate on behalf of neurotypical and allistic folks significantly more than the other way around. I highly recommend reading Nick Walker’s Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism post on his Neurocosmopolitanism blog for further ideas on how to negotiate a variety of conflicting needs.
S – sensory needs
C – cognitive needs and communication
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
L – language
E – expression and embodiment
I hope this guide points you in the right direction as you develop your framework for autistic accessibility. But it is far from complete. Though I spent over fifty hours drafting this guide and incorporated both my own experiences and those of various peers, online friends, and blogs, I am still coming across experiences I left out, glossed over, or contradicted.
So colleagues, please promise me the following:
- That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
- That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
- That you will start somewhere. I do not expect you to immediately apply everything tomorrow. Don’t let that stop you from taking small steps, starting conversations, and paving the way for future accessible possibilities.
- That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
- That you will send this guide to your collaborators, co-workers, teachers, peers, and/or anyone else whom you think needs to read it.
Really, please share, and most of all, please use this.
Come back for Part 3 next week, in which I will do a Q&A and troubleshoot case studies.
PS: If you share this guide and have the energy, I would appreciate credit! I’m Chrysanthe Tan (@chrysanthetan), and you are reading this on NewMusicBox (@NewMusicBox).