Tag: autism

Pro-Tips and Scripts: Autistic Accessibility in Music

An LED red arrow pointing to the right

You’ve reached Part 4 of the Introductory Course to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and this one’s full of action! Today, we get into the nuances of common things you will stumble upon as you increase your autistic awareness and start organizing with autistic people in mind. I offer pro-tips, concrete ways to take positive action, and sample scripts for a variety of music-related scenarios.

If you need to review the basics, check out the primer in my Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague, the epic Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and the Q&A featuring questions submitted by musicians and organizers. Now, here we go!

Quick navigation

[banneradvert]

Pro-Tips

  1. Do not argue with someone who tells you they are autistic, even if you “don’t believe them.” Why don’t you believe it? Unravel your assumptions about what an autistic person looks and acts like. Keep in mind that some autistic people may blend in more than you think.
  2. “But you act so normal!” Please do not utter that phrase in the vicinity of autistic people. Other variants include “ You don’t seem autistic,” “I couldn’t even tell!” and “I see beyond that; all I see is a talented musician and friend.” These are not compliments; they are indications of your discomfort with acknowledging autism and make us feel pressured to maintain our “normal behavior” in front of you. Appropriate responses to someone telling you they are autistic include “Cool,” “I didn’t know that!” and “How is this space for you, by the way? Let me know if there’s anything in particular I can do in our future interactions, as I’d love to help make sure you’re comfortable, even when you don’t want to speak up.”
  3. Adult diagnoses are a thing. In fact, many autistic people are diagnosed as adults, particularly women, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people. The old diagnostic criteria for autism had a strong male bias and thus favored male diagnoses. In addition, social pressures can cause girls to learn how to mask their autistic traits or remove themselves as a means for survival. Luckily, medical and mental health professionals are starting to catch up and look out for more varied sets of traits now. I was diagnosed as an adult as well. You can read more about that here.
  4. Self-diagnoses are valid. Some people are self-diagnosed, and in most of the autistic community, we validate that. It is a matter of privilege and access. Pursuing assessment and diagnosis is expensive, and many people lack the resources to obtain to that kind of “proof.” Unfortunately, that “proof” is sometimes necessary for gaining access to accommodations. In my mind, getting an autism diagnosis is like getting a diploma to hang on the wall to prove that you went to school. But even if you never picked up your diploma, it doesn’t mean you didn’t go through the classes too.
  5. “I don’t have any spoons left.” Have you heard of the spoon theory? It was a term coined by Christine Miserandino that provides a helpful metaphor for assessing physical and emotional energy among disabled and chronically ill folks. Many autistic folks use the metaphor of spoons to describe their capabilities and energy. As an ally, it would be helpful to understand what this means; otherwise, you will likely become confused when it comes up.
  6. Don’t guilt an autistic person into attending something, even if you’ve made specific accommodations on their behalf. Like any other person, sometimes, we just don’t show up. Maybe we’re tired, anxious, out of spoons, need a different accommodation, or have reasons unrelated to you. Don’t make us feel bad that you provided for us; in fact, making a big deal about your accommodation effort puts unnecessary pressure on others and can signal that you aren’t interested in being an autistic ally unless you’re getting recognized for your “benevolence.” Plus, even if your friend doesn’t attend, there may be another autistic person in your audience who still appreciates the safer space nonetheless.
  7. Autistic people can have specific clothing needs. This is largely due to sensory issues with fabrics, cuts, and breathability but can also be attributed to other things. If you notice an autistic person wearing what you think is unusual clothing or shoes, don’t give them flak for it. If you manage performing artists for shows, consider offering lenient costume options or being open to accommodating those with clothing-related sensory issues. It could be as simple as allowing a different fabric, a looser-fitting option, or a sweater. I’ve written about my own clothing specifics several times.
  8. We don’t want to hear about a cure. Don’t talk to us about curing autism or supporting research that cures autism. Also, keep in mind that ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is very controversial in the autistic community. Many of us do not support it and/or have been damaged by it. If you’re interested in treating symptoms associated with autism, first try changing your environment to make it more accomodating for autistic folks. I’ve written more on that subject here.
  9. Avoid using functioning-labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” While some autistic people use them, this is also a point of controversy in the autistic community. The short explanation is that these are judgments from the perspective of neurotypicals, autistic people contain various combinations of supposedly “high” and “low”-functioning abilities, this all creates a hierarchical divide in the autistic community, and it leads to self-described “high-functioning autistics” excluding so-called “low-functioning autistics.” If you’re trying to refer to an autistic person’s capabilities for the purpose of planning something more accurately and safely, just be specific about what you need (i.e. “autistic folks who can drive” or “autistic people who don’t require supervision in a public place”). But if you’re allistic, just let us handle this mess within our community; you should avoid the terms altogether.
  10. Ask before touching. This includes handshakes, hugs, and good-natured pats on the shoulder.
  11. The pattern of opposite extremes among autistic people is truly a grand irony. This irony, which we’ve covered in previous parts of this series, refers to the fact that various autistic people have vastly different — if not outright opposite — needs. For example, one autistic person may have an extreme aversion to heat, while another has an extreme aversion to cold. Moreover, these needs are often not consistent within the same person. For example, I detest being touched most of the time but also crave deep, extreme pressure in other instances. If you’d like even more specific examples, check out this post from Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog; it’s the best articulation of the phenomenon that I’ve read so far.
  12. Don’t expect us to be prepared. An allistic person once asked if I could make a list of helpful compensatory aids to distribute to fellow autistic people — along with specific brand recommendations and costs — so that we could start better providing for ourselves. Their explanation was that “most places cannot be accommodating of all special needs groups” and that “preparation on both sides is key.” A lot of this is true! It’s impossible for a place to be 100% accessible for everyone, and of course, self-planning can help. But this is not an inclusive notion to operate under, for many reasons. First, many autistic people cannot afford a plethora of ideal aids, especially if they are high-quality. I’ve seen the length of the waitlists for weighted blanket donations. Second, not everyone has the executive functioning capabilities, physical ability, or space to obtain, manage, remember, and hold onto all of the things they need. If I carried all of the things that made me comfortable at events, I would need a suitcase. Thus, if I know in advance that, say, temperature won’t be a problem and noise won’t be an issue, then I can leave my blanket and fancy headphone case at home. Another thing: Autistic people may not recognize or know how to name their triggers or needs; they may only recognize that they are feeling bad. And finally, autistic people already do swap information, try different solutions, and put a huge amount of pressure on themselves. Accessible spaces are still necessary.
  13. Provide gender-neutral restrooms and ask pronouns. Get in the habit of taking action to ensure that your space is gender-inclusive. Three big reasons: 1) Intersectionality. Many autistic people are gender non-conforming or queer (really, it’s kind of a thing), and yet most people don’t facilitate safe spaces to hold both identities. Regardless, don’t you want to make your space more welcoming anyway? 2) Cognitive difficulties can prevent autistic people from speaking up, making decisions, and processing information, so being misgendered, having to decide which restroom to use, or being bullied at your event could have heightened serious effects for an autistic person. Likewise, not knowing which pronouns to use — or not knowing how to disclose pronouns — can prevent a gender non-conforming autistic person from speaking or feeling included. 3) Some autistic people may need help or accompaniment in restrooms, and if their caretaker, friend, or family member is a different gender, this could cause embarrassment, harassment, or medical issues.
  14. Autistic accessibility doesn’t negate the importance of physical accessibility. A reader of this series submitted the following comment, and I think it’s important to address: “I am autistic and have a physical disability as well. I use a cane to walk, can’t stand for a long time, and cannot be in places with flashes of light because of epilepsy and seizures. This makes it very hard to navigate any venue, particularly music events that are in bars, with standing room only, or that have several obstacles to getting in the event. Because many people lump autism with disability, venues will work on autistic accessibility while not creating a place that accommodates physical disability. It is not comfortable.”

It is not okay to brush over needs like the ones described above. While many autistic people proudly and validly identify as disabled, autistic accessibility alone is not a substitute for all forms of accessibility, nor should it be conflated with physical disabilities. Organizers who either lump the two together or assume that taking care of one is “sufficient enough” to cover “all the disability bases” do a disservice to all disabled people and their loved ones. Able-bodied autistic folks need to be more mindful of this, too.

Here’s the thing: accessibility is not a concern to brush over, and that goes for autistic, cognitive, sensory, physical accessibility, and more. Your events really must be physically accessible. In fact, in many instances, it is federal law. Unfortunately, ADA requirements barely scratch the surface of accessibility, but knowing that there is a minimum requirement in this (not-so-inclusive) nation in the first place says something about the importance of this matter. You can do better than this bare minimum. Whenever in your power, make sure to accommodate both manual and power wheelchairs in the entrances, restrooms, and seating areas, provide clear paths to move through, and provide wide, sturdy seating options for folks who need to sit down. Be aware of other power-driven mobility devices (OPDMD) too, and be prepare to welcome them (depending on your venue, it may also be law).

Many people reading this series are musicians who put on smaller concerts in alternative spaces. I know you may not have the power to change the venue you rent, nor might you be able to secure a place in your budget, but you can still do things to make your space more physically accessible. Talk to the venue owners (or house owners). Ask if certain entrances can be used, if there can be someone on hand to assist guests, and if furniture can be moved to provide bigger pathways. If chairs are small and flimsy, try to add seating that can hold more weight and bigger sizes, otherwise fat people won’t be able to sit. If you’re looking for a house concert venue, consider asking hosts if they have accessible restrooms and entrances. No matter what venue you end up choosing, remember to be transparent in your invitations, clearly stating what you are and aren’t equipped for.

People who want to attend artistic events exist in all kinds of bodies and have all kinds of needs. This includes wheelchair users, fat people, autistic people, visually impaired people, folks who use canes or walkers, and people who sometimes use aids but sometimes do not. It includes both visibly and invisibly disabled people, as well as those with multiple disabilities. If you haven’t seen much physical diversity at concerts before, it’s probably because most concerts aren’t sufficiently accessible to begin with.

white shoes ready to step forward on red carpet

Image: Christian Chen

Take More Action

  1. Contact venues on your own to discuss accessibility. Did you go to an event and notice an area for improvement? Perhaps there was incomplete information, sound bleed from the adjacent room, extreme temperatures, or unaccommodating procedure. Let them know! Ask if something can be changed, or if more information could be added to the announcements and event details beforehand.
  2. Offer to help venues or donate items. If you notice something that’s not autistic-friendly, you could take your suggestion a step further by offering to help. You could volunteer to write out the details that are missing on the venue page. You could offer to make relevant signage. Or even donate or offer to buy items that could help (like seat cushions, stim toys, comfortable chairs, sunglasses, earplugs, blankets, weighted blankets, etc.). I’m not suggesting you randomly donate all these things to places; have a conversation first.
  3. If you have more info, share the info. If you see an invitation and notice a lack of logistical or accessibility details, ask the organizer if they can provide more information. But if you yourself know further information that could be shared, go ahead and share that! If it’s a Facebook event, for example, you can make a post saying “Dress code is casual, and parking is $3 cash only. There is a small step up going into the space that might not accommodate all wheelchairs. Folks with with sensory sensitivities, please note that floral scents will be used in the performance, there are also fluorescent lights overhead, and the room gets loud during amplified pieces, so plan accordingly.”
  4. Make everyday thoughtfulness part of your routine. The more aware you are of autistic accessibility needs, the better you will be able to notice them. I was overwhelmed and agitated at an important group meeting in a loud coffeeshop one day, when someone asked very matter-of-factly, “Chrysanthe, do you want to go inside the quiet office nearby?” I said yes, and we moved without further conversation. She didn’t need me to thank her or praise her awareness; it was just the thoughtful thing to do.
  5. Be careful which organizations you support. Unfortunately, many of them do not have autistic people in their leadership or don’t truly serve autistic people at all. The biggest autism organization in the world is one of the biggest offenders. I considered omitting the name, but because Autism Speaks harms and triggers many autistic people to hear about, I want you to be aware of that. The iconic blue puzzle piece logo and “Light It Up Blue” campaign are also closely associated with them, so autistic people participate in the “Red Instead” campaign. Feel free to look up “Autism Speaks boycott,” if you’re interested in seeing years of extensive writing on the subject. On the other hand, if you’d like to explore the work of pro-autistic efforts, check out Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Autism Women & Nonbinary Network, Respectfully Connected, Parenting Autistic Children with Love and Acceptance (PACLA), and other autistic-run groups instead.
  6. Support local efforts and individual autistic people or projects. It’s not just about the big orgs. In fact, it can be even more powerful to support smaller or grassroots efforts. Are all the venues in your hometown accessible? Can you see areas for improvement in the spaces you frequent? Do you consume, like, and learn from the content of autistic bloggers, YouTubers, and artists? Many autistic people have alternative careers due to workplace discrimination, inaccessibility, or other needs that aren’t conducive to a traditional structure. Support those creators and activists. Think of all your activities and interests and see if there’s room to improve your little corner of the world or amplify autistic voices. Is your cooking club autistic-friendly? How about your thrifting aficionado Facebook group? If you love literature or podcasts, throw some support behind an autistic book project or podcast. There are so many autistic people creating change and adding their unique voice to the world on a daily basis. Support. Them. (Us.)
  7. Google “actually autistic” and search the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. This hashtag and label is what many autistic people use to share their stories, humor, ideas, and experiences. You can also try #AskingAutistics on Twitter. If you have a question for #AskingAutistics, be sure to disclose whether you are non-autistic.

Sample scripts

Stimming PSA

Last week, someone asked for a suggestion regarding how to tell audiences that simming and moving are okay, as well as good ways to let allistics know that this may be happening. I suggested writing a “stimming PSA” and including it on programs, event pages, signs, and in verbal announcements. There’s no perfect way to do this that prevents all issues and pushback, but it’s worth a try. Here’s an example of a stimming announcement that you can make.

“This event is a stim-positive space! All means of expression are valid, and we want you to express yourselves comfortably — whether that means sitting still or flapping your hands. We ask that you refrain from touching other people, but if you’d like to make noise or move around beyond the confines of your seat, you can do so freely in [designated spot]. [State whether the entertainment will still be viewable or audible from that spot]. Last but not least, respect is required for all, so if you notice a means of expression that you’re not used to — and as long as it’s not harming anyone — be kind.“

Emailing a venue about accessibility

Option 1:

Dear ___________,

I’m hoping to attend your event next week but wanted to check on a few accessibility things beforehand.

First, will there be ____________? Second, might there be an option to ____________? Third, can you provide more details about ____________?

___________[I, My friend, Many of my colleagues, etc.] am/are autistic, which can make it difficult to ___________ and ___________. Knowing your answers in advance could help me plan better or know what to expect before confirming my ticket.

Anyway, your concert sounds right up my alley, so I hope I can be there! ___________ is simply the best…

Thanks so much,

___________

Option 2:

Hi there,

I’m really hoping to attend your event tomorrow, so could you help me by answering a few questions about accessibility? I am autistic and have trouble ____________.

First, is there more information you could provide in advance about parking, restrooms, and ____________? Having more information would lighten my cognitive load and help me plan.

Second, is the venue air conditioned and/or heated? I am very sensitive to ____________ and would like to come prepared either way.

Thanks so much. Hope to be there!

____________

Option 3:

Dear ____________,

Spectacular performance of ____________ last night! I particularly loved the ____________.

I noticed something in your venue that I wanted to make sure you’re aware of: The ____________ in the ____________ is quite ____________, which can make it difficult for autistic folks and other people with cognitive or sensory needs to ____________. Perhaps you could try ____________ instead? [Optional: Something like that would certainly make it easier for me/my ____________ to attend in the future.]

Thanks for considering! I’m happy to help with the endeavor if I can. Bravo again on the concert.

Sincerely,

____________

Calling out ableist language

Ableist language runs rampant, even in progressive communities. It is often unintentional and due to lack of awareness. If you notice ableist language, it can be difficult to speak up, but we all must try. Check out this great list of ableist terms and alternatives to consider. Here are some ideas for how to phrase these tricky conversations:

“What do you mean by ____________? Do you just mean ____________ instead? Okay, yeah, let’s use that instead, because ____________ is actually considered ableist, and I know you’re not trying to be like that.”

“Whoa, I haven’t heard that word in so long! Turns out, it’s actually a huge bummer for people with cognitive impairments. I think what you meant was ____________, right? You normally don’t use ableist language, so I’m telling you this because I know you care.”

“Oof, I totally agree with your sentiment, but that’s not a word I like. Can we say ____________ instead? I don’t want to make ____________ people feel unwelcome.”

“Hey, I think you accidentally used an ableist slur. Did you mean that? It’s interesting how language can be so ingrained in our culture that we totally forget about the origins.”

“Heads up, you used an ableist term on page 3: ____________. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a degrading word, but once you know it, you can’t unsee it… If you think about it, it makes sense why it’s offensive.”

“Trust me, I make mistakes all the time. Some of this stuff is so ingrained that we never realized what we grew up saying. Good thing we’re still learning now, because yikes! Glad that word is gone from my vocabulary.”

“Hey, I know you don’t mean it that way, but that phrase is actually considered derogatory toward people with disabilities.”


This concludes our four-part series on Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music. Thank you to NewMusicBox for giving me this platform. And thank you, readers, for your time, for putting art into the world, and for your commitment to improving accessibility for autistic people.

If you’d like to contact me personally, request an autistic accessibility consultation, listen to my music, join my artistic family, commission work, or talk to me on social media (@chrysanthetan), the proper links are below.

Professional: Website / Email / Spotify
Social: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook / YouTube
Personal: Patreon

Sincerely,
Chrysanthe

Q&A: Autistic Accessibility in Music

A person with their hand raised in the air

Welcome to Part 3 of my Introductory Course to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music. In this post, I will answer a selection of the wonderful reader-submitted questions, covering topics like sensory-friendly rooms, classroom techniques, wheelchair accessibility, stimming, and more. I have condensed, edited, and combined several questions.

As always, my answers represent solely my own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of other autistic people, whom you should learn from as well.

If you need to catch up, you can check out:

Part 1: An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague
Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

Here are all the questions in this post.

  1. If an autistic student has challenges with speaking up in class, how can I help?
  2. How can educators make musical groups more accessible to those on the spectrum?
  3. How can I provide better guidance for autistic students interested in performance careers?
  4. How can we navigate situations that welcome some autistic people but exclude others?
  5. Is it okay to ask audience members what their needs are?
  6. What are some good ways to tell audience members that stimming is okay?
  7. How can we accommodate audience members in louder genres like rock, pop, metal, etc.?
  8. What autistic needs can I be more aware of when designing virtual experiences like webinars?
  9. In sensitivity training, I learned to use person-first language, but you use identity-first. So which is it?
  10. What do I need for my sensory-friendly room?
  11. What are your thoughts on traditional “accommodations conversations” and the fact that autistic musicians are often left out of discussions?
  12. Would you be able to consult with us?

[banneradvert]

Education:

1. Comfort and participation

If an autistic student has challenges with speaking up in class in discussions, how should the instructor react? Should we call them out by name, i.e. “…and Kathy, how do you feel about that?” Should we get even more specific, i.e. “Kathy, what kind of chord is in measure 4?” I’m curious how the neurotypical teacher + autistic student relationship can be developed comfortably so as to optimize the student’s learning.

Great question. It seems your key goal and thus, guiding principle, lies at the end of your last sentence: The goal in mind is to optimize the autistic student’s learning. For the purposes of my answer and this audience, I’m going to assume that you mean “learning” in a holistic sense that prioritizes every student’s individualized experience with the material, accounts for different paces, and embraces each person’s unique synthesis of information. I’m also going to assume that you have not already spoken with the student privately about this.

Anyway, you’ve posed a question here about how to compassionately handle an autistic student that has challenges speaking up. First, you might determine whether the autistic student is actually having challenges speaking up, or whether they are simply not speaking up (for whatever reason). Perhaps the student simply does not realize that speaking up is expected, useful, or serves a purpose other than “getting my participation points” or “making the teacher happy.” Moreover, the student may not realize they are being quiet in the first place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped mid-conversation while talking to a loved one; I simply do not realize that the words have stopped coming out of my mouth, because my thoughts and feelings continue in my brain. Students who are not aware of their silence may respond better when specifically invited to talk.

If the student has challenges with speaking up, I would approach this from a broader viewpoint: In order for any student to speak up in class, they must first feel safe and supported. Thus, if I were a teacher, I would do everything within my power to established a safe learning environment in the classroom from the outset. Safe environment means not only safety from harassment and bullying but also explicit normalization of autistic needs and behaviors. To be clear, I don’t mean specifically naming autism and calling people out, but establishing right at the beginning of the semester that your classroom is neurodiversity-positive, that stimming is welcome, and that you support everyone’s need to take care of themselves, would be a great first step. Throughout the semester, it would then be important to avoid singling the autistic person out. This includes imposing rules on the rest of the class that don’t apply to the autistic person, because as soon as the autistic person “breaks the rule,” other students call it into question (“how come Kathy can do it?”), which prompts the student or teacher to awkwardly justify “because Kathy is autistic and needs an exception.” Yikes.

It would also help to address your expectations with class discussion head-on, give specific reasons why individual contributions may add to the greater whole, and lay out any protocol you have in mind for conducting discussion. You could even ask students to weigh in on the agreed-upon discussion requirements and protocol, though if you let students influence the decision, make sure to hear from every person, not just the dominant few. Do they want to pass a baton around? Engage in discussion loosely? Hear from every person during every class? Allow for ebb and flow? While this may not be possible for all classrooms, it’s an idea to consider when appropriate. This is also a good time to establish hard lines for respect and affirmation during discussion, to note that people have different speaking styles and that while some people speak quickly, others may take a longer time to get their words out.

Now to address your specific, in-the-moment question! Here are some tips.

  • Invite the student to the discussion by using their name (pronounced correctly) and giving them a question that you’re fairly certain they will be able to respond to. Don’t ask a specific, tough question that they may embarrass themselves on. Rather, ask them about something they have experience in (“Kathy, you’re a bassist, what is it like from your perspective?”), something that you already know they have thoughts on (“Kathy had a fascinating take on this in her paper; do you mind telling us more?”), or something that you notice them reacting to in real-time. It is fairly important to help them have a couple discussion wins at first, so they build confidence and learn that their voice is valued in the class.
  • Try having a predictable pattern of responders one day. If you’re simply going down the rows, for example, an autistic person may appreciate the predictability of knowing when it’s their turn.
  • Try having small group discussions instead of large ones. You could even try “turn to your partner and share your answer for a minute.”
  • One technique that I always wished a teacher would implement is accepting written comments during class. If I could have just teleported notes to the conversation facilitator in some way, that would have been awesome. I never used to speak in class, as I wasn’t comfortable with my verbal expression. My written language has always been more cohesive and how I wished to present my thoughts.

Last piece of advice, I swear, is to just let a quiet autistic student be. If they have been cognitively drained by other stressors during the day, they may simply not have the juice to participate or even learn.

2. Children’s musical groups


How can we help autistic children navigate participating in the music community? I’ve run a children’s choir for a number of years and have struggled with trying to successfully include children on the spectrum. For the ones who have joined us, we’ve worked through ways to help them, and the musical opportunity has been SO good for them, including helping them make huge connections with language and social skills. However, it is not an easy atmosphere for someone on the spectrum, as it can be loud and overwhelming. I’m a mother and sister of autistic people as well as a music teacher. I’d love to hear your insight as to how you grew up in the music community (what worked and didn’t) and how educators can make musical groups more accessible to those on the spectrum.

My experience growing up in the music community included private violin and piano lessons, orchestras, concerts, recitals, competitions, auditions, evaluations, and very briefly, choir. A few specific things that did work: one-on-one time with teachers, options for quiet time and space, and hearing my questions and comments validated (made me feel important and encouraged me to talk more). A few specific things that didn’t work: unclear instructions, rules without a reason, nonspecific start and end times, when teachers called attention to my unusual behavior.

However, the worst part is that felt I didn’t belong. Even more awful, I felt that the burden was placed on me —to fit in better, to learn how to talk to the other kids, to learn my social skills, to erase myself and my needs—rather than on my peers and facilitators to validate and understand me better. I see this happen often. Autistic people are always taught skills to “blend in better,” to play better with the neurotypicals, and are even subjected to therapies that reward acting “normal.” Even outside of a formal setting, hearing continued positive reinforcement for acting neurotypical instead of “autistic” (i.e. stimming less in public, not complaining about noise, etc.) can be damaging for autistic children, as it reinforces the notion that they are not intrinsically okay and that they should hide themselves, deny their own needs, and be ashamed of themselves. Let me tell you, the effects of this play out well into adulthood. I still struggle with it daily.

Thus, the best thing an educator can do to make a musical group more accessible to those on the spectrum is to make adaptations that intrinsically make it easier for autistic youth to participate without needing a special exception or aid. You mentioned that the atmosphere is not easy for an autistic child, as it can be loud and overwhelming. Are there any aspects of the loud, overwhelming environment that are within your control? If so, start there. Maybe you can’t control how loud it is when the choir sings together, but you teach “quiet voice” rules during social time. Could you also make a special “quiet signal” to help the class snap to a quiet state? If you currently use a bell or something loud and obtrusive, consider switching to a more muted, less jarring signal. Perhaps it is also possible to make a safe escape zone, though I understand that can be difficult if you don’t have help monitoring students. You could also offer earplugs, sunglasses, or other aids to assist with sound and lights.

Last but not least, you mentioned that you have an autistic sibling and child. If you were designing a choir rehearsal for them, what would you provide for them to feel comfortable? Maybe you could even ask them what they would like. If other parents ever insinuate that you’re unfairly giving autistic people like your child “special treatment” that “encroaches on the fun and freedom of everyone else,” then I kindly invite you to nod and smile, because yes, the aim is to make life easier for autistic people and indeed make it harder for others to conveniently ignore us.

3. Career preparation

I have had at least one autistic student in my bands and orchestras every year throughout my 20-year teaching career. I would like to provide better guidance for those students considering a performing career. What are some possible differences in career preparation and career development between an autistic and allistic aspiring professional musician?

Great question, and I love where your mind is going. My thoughts:

  • Help students really “see” and lean into their strengths. Many students and early professionals are either not sure what makes them unique, or they’re only able to frame their unique aspects as negatives. Thus, the more you can guide a student toward owning and harnessing the power of their strengths, rather than focusing on weaknesses, the more confidently they will be able to approach a career. Are you familiar with the Strengthsfinder 2.0 book and accompanying strengths test? That helped me in ways I didn’t expect.
  • Expose the student to a wide variety of career options, not just on paper but with specific role models, videos, interviews, and a breadth of examples. Include autistic folks too, so they can see people like themselves in a variety of music careers (even if not performance).
  • Be creative with your guidance and embrace alternative techniques, careers, and options with the same amount of respect and enthusiasm that you do traditional paths. Some autistic people want a traditional career, like playing in an orchestra, teaching music, or becoming a soloist. Others do not. Some autistic people who want a traditional career only do so out of default, not knowing other options, or hoping it makes them gain respect.
  • Look out for signs that the student is trying to please someone other than themselves. There’s a bit of a joke within the autistic community that many of us are “late bloomers.” After being told what to do and how to act for so long, it can take a while for an autistic person to trust their own instincts.
  • When giving advice, get to the heart of why your suggestion is important. Autistic people may have a harder time adapting to new skills, particularly if we experience roadblocks beyond the normal learning curve or general discomfort. Having a concrete reason to learn a skill might help us stay motivated along the path, assuming we also agree it is a worthy goal. On the other hand, having real reasons may help us devise a creative workaround that accomplishes the same goal instead. One example is with networking. Instead of saying, “Going to networking mixers is hard but important,” speak to why exactly they are helpful. If the goal of attending a networking mixer is to build relationships, establish a continued presence, or show off a recent project, perhaps a student can think of alternative ways to accomplish those aims. I’ve had great success building relationships online, sending personal emails instead of congratulating performers at concerts, and sharing my thoughts in writing rather than verbally.
  • Help autistic students come up with a plan and some initial action steps. Cognitive hurdles can make it tough for an autistic person to organize a plan, especially with limited knowledge of the industry, so any hands-on guidance or accountability would go a long way.

audience taking notes

Events:

4. Conflicting Needs

How can we navigate situations that make one autistic person feel welcome but another feel excluded?

There is no easy answer to this. The best I can think of is:

  • When it comes to sensory environments, give preference to less stimulation rather than more stimulation. Being overstimulated tends to be more painful than being understimulated.
  • When appropriate, see if it’s possible to have different zones for different needs.
  • While not perfect, in group settings it is necessary to negotiate different needs. The more an organizer can do to assist in this endeavor, the better. For example, in order to accommodate people who may need to walk, shuffle, or move their feet during a concert, an organizer can lay out a fuzzy rug or other soft floor material that absorbs sound. Socks or slippers can be provided while using the rug. Sure, these guests would be compromising a little by remaining in the sound-dampened space, but I believe the genuine effort would be better than nothing.
  • Autistic author and educator Nick Walker has great suggestions on the subject of conflicting access needs in their blog post “Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism.”

5. Can I ask?

Is it okay to ask audience ahead of time to let me know if they have any specific needs? If so, how could I pose that question without making autistic people feel uncomfortable and different? I don’t want to inadvertently embarrass someone who doesn’t want to be open about their autism, but on the other hand, if I know specific needs, I can tailor the experience more.
Generally speaking, I think it is okay to ask an audience ahead of time if they have specific needs. However, this would all be dependent on how you’re asking, through what medium you’re directing the question, how well you know the audience, if you’re talking about specific audience members, and other factors.

If you’re unsure how to go about this, applying concepts from the Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music is a great place to start. You could even use the guide to help you come up with specific leading questions. Perhaps you could provide a link to a Google form or other survey that includes checkboxes with options for various sensitivities and needs. But before even going through that trouble, I would operate from the basic principles in the Master Guide, remembering that when it comes to sensory things, less is best, even though some autistic people prefer more.

If you have specific friends or acquaintances in mind who are already open to you about their autism, then I think it’s worth asking. It would help if you gave them a starting point (such as providing two options or describing the basic concept), rather than listing needs with no baseline. Personally, it makes me feel vastly more “uncomfortable and different” to go to an event clearly not designed with people like me in mind than it does to be asked and provided for. Keep in mind when asking that an autistic person may not feel like responding and may even ignore your message. Don’t take it personally. And don’t cross the line and starting asking them to “okay” your every decision. Simply try your best, put on the event, solicit honest feedback, and tweak your efforts.

6. Stimming PSA

What are some good ways to tell potential audience members that stimming and moving around at a performance is okay, and good ways to let allistics know that autistics may be doing so (how to prepare for allistic push-back, really)?

I’m so glad you brought this up and specifically mentioned the importance of communicating the message to non-autistic folks, too. I hope everyone reading this takes note: It is never enough to privately let autistic people know that their stimming (or other behavior) is welcome. Unless everyone knows and gets it, stimming will never truly be welcome.

I would write a “Stimming PSA” and state it as plainly and unapologetically, in as many formats as possible. If an event has printed programs, put it on a main page of the program. Make a verbal announcement at the event. Put it on the Facebook invite. You could even print out some signs with a few audience reminders on them. Think of the places (visual and verbal) where parking, transportation, accessibility, and other information would go, and those would also be good spots to include the stimming PSA.

I’ll think of some ways to phrase a potential “Stimming PSA” and put that in my next post of this series. Post 4 will be all about pro-tips and sample scripts for autistic accessibility, so this would fit in nicely.

7. Rock concerts

What are some good ways to accommodate audience members who become easily overstimulated during live shows, especially in louder genres like rock, pop, metal, etc.?

Be upfront in advance about the sensory warnings, designate a few “safe zones” for sensitive folks to escape to, and offer earplugs and other helpful aids. The Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music will provide more things to keep in mind! Aside from noise levels, big rock and pop productions may have overstimulating visual triggers (such as strobe lights) or elements of surprise (like pyrotechnics). Communicate these in advance as well. Last but not least, enforce audience conduct, minimize situations in which autistic people may be touched, bumped, or splashed, and provide a point person to help with any onsite accessibility requests.

8. Online events

What autistic accessibility needs can I be more aware of when designing virtual experiences, like online workshops and webinars?

A lot of accessibility needs are the same in virtual events as they are in live ones. Thus, the information in this Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music applies.

Particular things to keep in mind:

  • Provide clear, detailed instructions prior to the event. This should include the start and end times, how to log in to the event, protocol for interaction, and anything else that would enhance an audience member’s experience (i.e. bringing a notebook, being in a quiet place, etc.).
  • List any potential sensory (sonic + visual) triggers or trigger warnings for the event, and of course, minimize the occurrence of triggers.
  • Provide closed captioning, a transcript, and/or other written materials whenever possible.
  • If you’re showing slides, offer to share them afterward, even if upon request.
  • Please get your sound issues sorted out prior to the event! This is huge. Crackling, feedback, static, pops, or other things can be prevented with soundchecks. As a musician and frequent livestreamer, I am very sympathetic to sound and tech issues—and I know how out of our control they can be at times—but if you have any power to make your sound clear and smooth, please harness that power! (It will also make your event much more professional for everyone else, too. Win-win!)

Intricacies

9. Sensitive language

In all the “sensitivity” training I have had in the past ten years about supporting people with disabilities, we learned that you should use person-first instead of your suggested disability-first (i.e. “autistic person”) language. Now I’m so confused. Would you say this is just for autistic people, or am I now a few years out of date if I refer to people with disabilities… ? Help!

I’m glad you’re asking, because as you can see, the tips learned in sensitivity training are always subject to change. Indeed, most autistic people prefer identity-first language: autistic person. This is how all my autistic circles talk to one another and refer to ourselves.

Autistic self-advocates, and yes, many other disabled self-advocates too, tend to prefer identity-first language: autistic person, deaf person, disabled person, etc. However, like I mentioned in the Open Letter, there is no universally agreed-upon way, so you can never be 100% sure. Always default to whatever an individual prefers.

It is worth mentioning that the parents and loved ones of autistic folks sometimes insist upon person-first language. This may be confusing, because it contradicts what I (and many other autistic people) are saying. But I kindly ask you and other readers to prioritize the requests of autistic people rather than their parents. Thus, if autistic people want to be called autistic people, then call them that, even if their parents insist on people with autism.

Hope that helped! Remember that sensitivity training should always be taken with a grain of salt, as it often comes from the perspective of teachers who do not belong to the groups they teach about. It also tends to have an “us” vs. “them” vibe. I’m glad you’re using your sensitivity training as a starting point while also taking care to dig deeper.

10. Details for an autistic-friendly room, disability

I run a concert venue and have received feedback from numerous autistic audience members. I am now working on a plan to turn two soundproof tech booths (with full views of the stage) into rooms for people with different sensory needs. Each room will hold up to four people, have adjustable sound, have four moveable high stools along with, perhaps, a bean bag chair. What should we call the rooms when we launch this program? Surely not “Autism Rooms”? How do we deal with those that feel they will be segregated? How do we determine if someone qualifies to use the rooms? What if someone has a physical disability and sensory issues? Are we obligated to have the rooms be wheelchair accessible? In a perfect world, yes, but the rooms as they exist would need major renovation to accommodate wheelchairs, and we already have other wheelchair seats in the main house.

I absolutely love that you’re thinking about this and taking real steps to create an autistic-friendly space. This has the potential to be groundbreaking. Here are my thoughts:

  • First and foremost, bring an autistic person on board as soon as possible to help you plan and build this. It is imperative to have autistic people guiding the needs of the space, or it’ll be easy to overlook obvious things.
  • In addition to your high stools (which I assume are there in order to see through the window) and beanbag, I also recommend providing more seating, like a couch or wide, sturdy chairs. Stools are difficult for many people to sit on, and they have limited weight maximums. I would additionally put in a soft rug or install soft flooring (like the ones you see in Kindergarten classrooms), provide pillows, and other moveable comfort aids. Anything to make the room truly comfortable would be lovely.
  • To take these rooms to the next level, you might consider providing a chest or box of sensory aids, like fidget cubes, pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, or stress balls to squeeze.
  • You’re right; don’t call them “Autism rooms.” I’d go with “Sensory-friendly room” or something similar. Focus on the qualities of the room itself, rather than the target audience.
  • Regarding “those that feel they will be segregated,” I’m assuming that you won’t be forcing autistic people to go into that room, no? I don’t think it will be much of a concern, especially if the room is presented as a friendly, optional
  • How do you determine if someone “qualifies” to use the rooms? It’s simple: You don’t. There should be no barrier and no gatekeeper. If the rooms get too crowded, you could try having a volunteer at the door to keep track of capacity and manage a waiting list. If it is still unwieldy, think of other fair ways to manage the room and give people their turns without ever asking someone to prove their disability or discomfort. This is incredibly important.
  • Are you obligated to have the rooms be wheelchair accessible? Yes, you must make these rooms wheelchair accessible, or they will only serve a half purpose. I give this advice both from a “compassion and inclusivity” standpoint and from a business perspective. First of all, it is a common fallacy among well-intentioned allies and organizers to assume that autistic people are “only” autistic. The default autistic person is generally assumed to be able-bodied, white, cis, straight, hearing, sighted, or otherwise socially dominant, because this makes it easier to triage the autistic person’s needs. However, the reality is always more messy than that. Many autistic people reside in a complex set of identities, and if only one of those identities is being welcomed, then it is still not enough. For example, I am a queer, autistic person of color. I often do not go to queer events, because they aren’t autistic-accessible. I often don’t go to autistic social events, because they are not always queer and poc-friendly. You will have autistic concertgoers who use wheelchairs. You will have autistic concertgoers who are accompanied by friends or family members in wheelchairs. Thus, going through all the labor to make an autistic-friendly room without also making it wheelchair accessible would be tinged with fallen potential. Able-bodied autistic folks may even notice it too, and it may impact whether they invite their physically disabled friends to the venue.
  • From a practical standpoint, people will notice the lack of wheelchair accessibility, especially since the intrinsic purpose of your endeavor is to be welcoming toward more disabled folks. There aren’t many venues with sensory-friendly rooms, and for that reason alone, I have a feeling your rooms are going to attract attention, both publicly and by word-of-mouth. If I went to a great event with an accommodating sensory-friendly room, for example, I would be eager tell everyone I know, spread the good word, and urge people to support the venue. I’d hate to see your good-intentions and positive news marred by a glaring lack of wheelchair accessibility. As you state, accommodating wheelchairs would require a big renovation, and from an outsider’s perspective, it seems easier to fix it up sooner rather than later. If cost is a major barrier, could you rally your local arts community and raise funds for the effort? Apply for a grant? It seems like a worthy reason to raise money, and it is certainly worth waiting extra time for.

11. Inviting autistic folks to the accommodation discussion

As an autistic musician and composer, I find a lot of the proposed “accommodations” for autistic people in performance environments like concerts, film stagings, etc. don’t work for me because they don’t account for the particular ways I synthesize music and sound. For example, it is often suggested to allow people to vocally react or to keep the lights on during performances, but I would just find that distracting (it doesn’t help that I also have ADD in addition to autism). I was wondering if you had thoughts on how autistic musicians as a group are underrepresented in these conversations and some of the ways traditional “accommodations” conversations don’t always work for you.

I’m with you. Many traditional “accommodations” don’t work for me (including the same ones you mentioned), and autistic musicians are definitely underrepresented in these “accommodations conversations.” In fact, autistic people in general are left out of these conversations, which usually take place within a group of well-meaning allies. I can often tell when an event has been organized by an ally, because there will be some awesomely accessible things but then other blatant concerns will be missed. As well-studied and compassionate as an allistic ally is, their knowledge will never cause them to fully understand what it’s like to exist in an autistic body and mind—and it’s not their fault. That makes it even more crucial for autistic people to be included in these discussions as well.

Sometimes, non-autistic “autism experts” or loved ones of autistic people are brought on to inform the conversations, but their secondhand experience is also not a substitute for real, autistic experience.

You specifically mention autistic musicians not being incorporated into accommodation discussions, and that is a great point. For music-related events in particular, having an autistic musician on board to consult with on accessibility details could save time, effort, and provide a better experience for audience members. I recently made an audio accessibility suggestion at an event, and because I both noticed the sensory triggers and knew how to describe the origins of the triggers (a piece of equipment and a style of mixing), the organizers now have a better idea of how to troubleshoot sound next time. With regard to your particular examples of keeping lights on and allowing vocal reactions, this touches on a broader issue of conflicting access needs. I talk more about that in question #4.

By the way, I also have ADHD. Apparently, it is not uncommon for autistic people to be neurodivergent in both ways.

12. Consulting

I run a prominent center for music therapy that works with a variety of people, including those diagnosed with autism. We were recently approached by the head of a vocal performance program who wants help in supporting autistic students. She maintains a policy that she cannot accept any student who will not be able to successfully get a job singing. She wants to do all that she can to help these potential students get accepted into her program and succeed. Would you be able to consult with us and share your ideas, both on how to create accommodations to make classes more conducive and also how to help the students develop the social skills and emotional awareness the program director deems necessary to complete the program? We are considering having a support group at our music therapy center to help these students succeed.

This is a complex question, but I’m happy to hear that the head of a performance program is interested in supporting autistic students. I’m curious what it means to “successfully” get a job singing, as well as what kinds of “social skills and emotional awareness” the program director deems necessary. I think having a support group at your music therapy center sounds like a great idea, provided that it is facilitated by autistic people. If you’d like to consult further, you may email me at [email protected] and we can set up a session.


Thank you to everyone who submitted questions! I hope this Q&A was helpful. If I didn’t get to your question, or if you’d like further consultation, you may email me at [email protected] to schedule a conversation, as availability allows.

To all readers, thank you for your attention and consideration. I appreciate your curiosity, compassion, and commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your corner of the musical world. Stay tuned for Part 4, the final installment of this series, next week!

Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

People sitting in a restaurant watching a violinist perform center stage

“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.

[banneradvert]

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.

The Guide:

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.

Recap:

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:

  1. That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
  2. That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
  3. 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.
  4. That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
  5. 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).

An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague

A sideways photo of an audience in a concert hall

Musicians, arts administrators, colleagues: It’s time we talk about autism.

No, we’re not talking about autism charity efforts, nor once-a-year concerts for autistic children, and goodness, no, not inspirational stories. Autistic people exist at all ages, all times of the year, and in rather ordinary aspects of life. We’re everywhere: We are fellow musicians, collaborators, and artists. We are enthusiastic audience members, patrons, and guests. And so it’s time you adapted a permanent framework for improving autistic accessibility in your concerts, rehearsals, and other music organization efforts.

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Chrysanthe Tan, a real-life, autistic violinist, composer, and recording artist, and in my near-decade of working in many music spheres, I’ve noticed an unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility. I have sat through rehearsals while on the verge of vomiting from sensory discomfort, cradled my head and rocked back and forth in my chair when rooms got too loud, and skipped many concerts due to the panicked embarrassment of not knowing attire or protocol.

While certainly upsetting, unfortunate, and uncomfortable, the lack of autistic awareness in the music world is not intentional, nor is it purposely aggressive. I know this. Ironically, that makes it even harder for me to discuss it with people. I don’t want to be too accusatory, don’t want to cause misinterpretation, don’t want to deal with defensiveness, and definitely don’t want to feel bad for requesting fairer access. It’s a whole thing. But the time has come.

I’m ready, and you’re ready too.

Over the next few weeks, I will be laying out a compassionate, no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter. This information — separated into four parts — is geared toward anyone who works in or otherwise takes part in the making or presentation of music. This includes students, teachers, administrators, conductors, soloists, ensembles, producers, contractors, classical artists, pop musicians, and, well, you get the point. The information presented will be applicable to numerous contexts. It will help you increase your understanding of autistic colleagues and concertgoers–hopefully in a way that enables you to make better future judgment calls. The information will be actionable.

Here’s what to expect in this four-part series:

  • Part 1 (this post): This article serves as the introduction to the column and includes a basic primer on autism and how to treat autistic people. Having these basics down will make it easier to internalize the information in the following three parts. We only have this short time together, so it’s off to the races!
  • Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Concerts (and rehearsal spaces). I’ll tell you what autistic-friendly considerations to keep in mind, give pointers making event invitations more accessible, and cite things to avoid in your planning. I’ll also offer tips on making collaborative spaces and relationships more autistic-welcoming.
  • Part 3: Q&A and Case Studies – In this post, I will answer specific questions pertaining to autistic accessibility in music spaces. Thus, I’ll need your questions in advance — by March 10! Please take advantage of this opportunity to ask nitty gritty, embarrassing questions and even submit detailed examples of what autistic accessibility questions you’re struggling with. Should you choose an indoor or outdoor venue? Assigned or unassigned seating? Is your event invitation missing any crucial information for autistic people? I look forward to answering and helping to troubleshoot these questions. NewMusicBox has kindly set up this form, which you can use to anonymously submit.
  • Part 4: Pro-Tips and Sample Scripts – This last post will be filled with ideas for how to be a more powerful advocate for autistic people. I’ll also include sample language for more inclusive programs, invitations, emails, interactions, and more.

A Primer on Autism and Autistic People

You’ll want to familiarize yourself with these terms and concepts before reading the rest of the series.

  1. Autism is a neurological, developmental, and pervasive way of being that can manifest in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: sensory sensitivity, communication impairments, atypical social skills, and atypical information processing and learning styles. Autism is generally referred to as a disability or disorder, though some autistics prefer not to identify it as such. Selective use of the “disabled” term is also common, depending on the context and company.
  2. Allistic refers to a person without autism. It can be used as a noun (i.e. an allistic) or an adjective (i.e. allistic people). Some people use the word neurotypical to mean the same thing, though allistic is more precise these days.
  3. Autistic Person vs. Person with Autism – You’ve probably noticed that I’ve referred to “autistic people” rather than “people with autism.” While there’s no hard and fast rule on this, autistic self-advocates tend to favor identity-first language (i.e. “autistic person”) over person-first language (i.e. “person with autism.” Calling someone a “person with autism” distances the person from the identity, implying a separation between the individual and the disability. However, many autistics consider their autism an important part of their identity and wish to embrace it in the same way that I also call myself Cambodian, Greek, and queer. If you’re truly not sure what label to use with a person, you may also default to “person on the autism spectrum.” But when in doubt, simply ask the person, and always use what they desire for themselves. You can read more about identity-first vs. person-first semantics on Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog.
  4. Don’t brush it under the rug! – If you have an autistic friend, family member, or colleague, your instinct may be to politely ignore their autism, not treat the person any differently, and offer seemingly comforting phrases like “I see past your disability,” “Your condition doesn’t define you,” and “I hardly even notice your autism.” However, for many autistic people — myself included — this can be harmful, as it reinforces the internalized shame autistic people have learned. If you’re awkward about my autism, I’m awkward about it in turn. And if you claim not to “see it,” then I wonder if you are in denial, whether you accept me despite rather than wholeheartedly including my autism, or whether I’m inconveniencing you if I dare bring up the “A” word or state my special needs. It sucks. Please don’t default to this unless your autistic colleague or loved one specifically tells you not to acknowledge it.
  5. Autistic people are *not* the same as “everyone else” – Forget what you learned in elementary school; we are not all the same. Yes, we are all human beings who deserve love and respect, but autistic people do have unique needs and often do need special accommodations that allistic people must learn about. Acknowledging our different realities isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it can help you learn how to interact with us better, deepen our relationships with you, and increase our comfort and accessibility.
  6. Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome – A lot of people wonder if these are the same thing. Truth is, it’s confusing, so here’s the quick sum-up: Asperger syndrome used to be in the DSM-IV as a diagnosis nearly identical to autism, except with “no clinically significant delay in development of language.” In 2013, the DSM-5 removed Asperger syndrome and introduced autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a unified umbrella term to include all of the various autistic disorders instead. Thus, a person diagnosed with Asperger syndrome pre-2013 would simply be diagnosed with autism today. Because many people originally diagnosed with Asperger’s choose to maintain their given label (as is their right), it is still common to hear the Asperger label today. This whole terminology hullaballoo is quite controversial in the autism community.
  7. If you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person. Autism is a big spectrum, and no two presentations of it are exactly alike. One autistic person’s biggest impairment may be another’s greatest skill. Moreover, the popular media representations of autistic people tend to favor a shockingly limited set of looks and behaviors (think the main characters in Rain Man, Atypical, or The Good Doctor). All of these examples portray white, cis, straight young men. It wasn’t until more recently that professionals started to notice the signs of autism in girls and non-binary people; turns out, we often have more hidden or subtle characteristics, potentially as a result of more intense social pressures growing up. To top it all off, autistic people tend toward extremes, which often lie in direct opposition to those of other autistic individuals. For example, some autistic people are incredibly sensitive to the cold, while others cannot stand heat.

This is where I shall stop, for now. Thank you for sticking with me and for making a commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your music world. Next week, we’re getting right down to the specifics.

But in the meantime, here’s what I need from you: As I mentioned above, Part 3 in this series will be a Q&A with your submitted questions and conundrums. Thus, I need your questions! The deadline to submit is Sunday, March 10, and you can do so anonymously by using this form or by sending an email directly to sur[email protected]. The more context you can provide about your situation, organization, or concert, the better!