Inclusivity and diversity have become a focal point for events and professionals in the industry. We explore the why and how of creating inclusive spaces for so-called neurodivergent people.
Conversations around diversity and inclusion often refer to people of different genders, races, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences. However, the unique needs of neurodivergent people — such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — are an often overlooked aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) — something that event planners and professionals are starting to consider more and more when hosting events.
A neuro-inclusive event is accessible, safe, and inclusive to different neurological types (neurotypical and neurodivergent), thus adding value to attendees and planners alike. But before we learn how to plan and host neuro-inclusive events, we must first understand neuro-differences, the meaning of neurodiversity, and why it is crucial to create safe and engaging spaces where more people can participate to their fullest potential.
In this piece, we delve into this topic by providing an overview of what it means to be neurodivergent and give practical suggestions for planners looking to create neuro-inclusive events.
Understanding the Why Behind Neuro-Inclusive Events
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE NEURODIVERGENT?
There are two types of neuro functioning — neurotypical and neurodivergent. Neurotypical brains operate in a typical way in terms of intellect, functioning, and development. By contrast, neurodivergent peoples’ brains respond, interact, develop, and function in ways outside of what is considered “typical.”
Being neurodivergent is not a mental health illness (a state of mind outside an individual’s “normal” self). Instead, being neurodivergent is a neurodevelopmental disorder (or condition) that occurs either before a person is born (in the womb) or in early childhood when the brain develops. And while the likelihood of a neurodivergent individual experiencing mental illness increases due to the risk profile, the two can and do exist separately; someone who is neurodivergent will always be neurodivergent, even when healthy and thriving and without mental illness.
Many of the conditions that fall under the category of “neurodivergent.” Although this list is not exhaustive, some examples of neurodivergent disorders and conditions include:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)
- Tourette’s Syndrome
CHALLENGES FACED BY NEURODIVERGENT PEOPLE
Being neurodivergent is not a trend or buzzword and should never be treated as such. In most instances, being neurodivergent is a very real and very taxing way people function neurologically. Donné Lance, a clinical psychologist in independent practice and senior consultant for The Neurodiversity Centre, explains that after overcoming challenges associated with even mild and moderate impairments in childhood, people with neurodiverse brains are often hindered by other factors when transitioning into adulthood. These factors could include fluctuating energy, persistent low mood, difficulty with intimacy, difficulty making eye contact, and executive functioning difficulties (to name a few).
As the external demands of the world and society increase, the difficulty in responding to these pressures often leads neurodivergent people to seek treatment — usually for anxiety and mood-related issues, which may, at times, look like burnout or a breakdown. By working to create inclusive environments, event planners can help to prevent neurodivergent attendees from feeling alienated.
WHAT IS NEURODIVERSITY
Clinical psychologist Donné Lance elaborates that neurodiversity often encompasses the perspective that neurodivergence is not something that necessarily needs to be treated or “cured” but instead accommodated, included, and more importantly, identified and understood. Lance adds, “This idea and the advocacy for a new understanding that considers neurological diversity (having a diverse variety of brains in a group), including different ways of being, sensing, integrating, perceiving, feeling (emotional and physical), are valued and embraced because of those very differences.”
But not everyone agrees with the term “neurodiversity” and its implicitly positive perception of neurodivergence. The concept can be controversial, as some argue that being neurodivergent can be debilitating and prevent someone from functioning or partaking in life in a very limited capacity.
However, this should not stop or deter planners from working towards including and accommodating neurodivergent people who could potentially attend an event — planners must be aware of and commit to designing neuro-inclusive event experiences whenever and wherever possible while being aware of existing strengths-based approaches.
NEURO-INCLUSIVITY CREATES SHARED VALUE
Planners should design events for everyone attending, not just for the organization’s core target demographic — connecting with all members of the audience ensures they will keep coming back.
Founder and CEO of EventWell, Helen Moon, believes that we need to stop seeing attendees as commodities and get back to the basics of people-focused events. This view speaks to creating neuro-inclusive spaces. “We’ve lost sight of the human beings sitting in the seats, and walking floors visiting the exhibits,” said Moon. “If you can create an event that enhances that experience, at every single level for everybody attending that event, then that’s a win-win, and it shows that people want to come back to that [event] again.”
Some have also suggested that creating neuro-inclusive environments in the working world can lead to a more resilient workplace. Why can the same not be said for event spaces, including internal meetings organized in response to the current shift to remote working and new event planner roles?
Making accommodations for a diverse event audience within a room (either virtual or in-person) creates opportunities to add richness to event engagement and interaction. An enhanced experience is bound to happen as you have designed an environment where different perspectives, mindsets, and backgrounds can co-create, amplifying engagement in a variety of activities from networking and Q&As to workshops and panel-to-audience interplay.
Characteristics of Neuro-Inclusive Events
One of the most essential elements to any neuro-inclusive event policy is the creation of “safe spaces.” The basic idea is to provide environments where those prone to sensory over-stimulation can rest all of their senses — ideally enjoying quiet, dim lighting, ample personal space, and no strong smells.
While creating these “safe spaces” is nothing new to the mental health and wellbeing sectors, they can be relatively novel in the events industry. Events that have been providing these spaces for several years include IMEX through their “white space” area, the Annual ICA Conference, and Microsoft events.
Another organization moving to champion this approach is EventWell, which launched their “quiet room” concept in September 2021. EventWell’s quiet rooms include working with planners to create designated event areas where neurodivergent people can seek respite when they need to take a sensory break — a break from things like loud noise, crowds, and bright lights.
Moon added that the location of a quiet room can be pivotal. By placing the quiet room next to the plenary room, this allows for a neurodivergent attendees to listen to the keynote while feeling comfortable and not overwhelmed or stressed.
The process of designing neuro-inclusive events needs to start at the conception stage and include aspects like the environment, engagement strategies, and representation for the neuro-diverse community.
In the next section, we outline top recommendations from industry professionals for designing neuro-inclusive events.
12 Recommendations for Designing Neuro-Inclusive Events
Neuro-inclusive event spaces
1. Offer hybrid event formats
Hybrid events give neurodivergent people a choice when deciding to attend an event either in-person or virtually to best respond according to their unique needs and ways of coping in social situations.
Lance points out that early advocates for neurodiversity predicted the use of the internet as a tool to help people with autism (specifically) connect with others via something like social media and gaming. “We saw during the rapid lockdowns implemented worldwide how workplaces, schools can accommodate flexible schedules, online learning, and meetings,” said Lance.
However, the needs of neurodivergent people can and do differ from person to person. To explain this, Lance added that online engagement formats can help conserve energy for some neurodivergent people due to minimized social interaction and the skills required to do so are incrementally less. Lance also noted that for other neurodivergent people, it can create challenges. These challenges are especially relevant for those reliant on (their) affective empathy and acute observational skills to assess the room and react [accordingly] with learned responses.
2. Provide reduced or no-noise zones
Map out a space at your event where there is substantial noise reduction. This space will give attendees sensitive to noise the opportunity to reset when they feel overwhelmed. Consider providing headphones to cancel out noise further or privately play a preferred type of music, which can sometimes bring people back to equilibrium. Alternatively, headphones can allow attendees to listen in on sessions remotely, away from crowds and bright lights. Give options.
Additionally, it can be important to set guidelines for how the quiet room should be used. At the 2019 ICA Conference, for example, organizers provided the following notice: “[The room] designated as a comfort room/quiet room [is] for use by attendees requiring a respite from meeting activities. Please note that this room is not to be used for meetings, conversation, or phone calls.”
3. Think about lighting
Bright lights coupled with the visual effects typically used at events can be overly stimulating for neurodivergent people. When creating your safe space, ensure that you consider the lighting and the effect it will have. Do you use lights that face up to avoid the glare? Or lighting with a softer color?
4. Accommodate stimming
Some neurodivergent people engage in self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming. It usually involves repetitive behavior like hand flapping, rocking, repeating words, blinking a lot, and, in extreme cases, skin picking and headbanging. Most people partake in some form of stimming in life, such as nail-biting. However, autistic people tend to stim significantly more. Consider providing an environment where attendees can feel comfortable stimming, possibly offering some tools to stim with, like fidgets. These accommodations can allow people to self-soothe and work through feelings of anxiety, fear, and even excitement.
5. Offer priority access to refreshments and meals
To help them avoid moving into crowded spaces and overstimulation, attendees sitting in the quiet room should have access to refreshments offered at the event with the option to take their meal there if they wish. Many neurodivergent people can also have unique dietary requirements, which should be catered for.
6. Go fragrance-free
Ideally, quiet rooms and spaces should be fragrance-free or use fragrances that do not overwhelm people or trigger sensory overloads. EventWell has successfully used modest amounts of essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus, known for their potential calming effects. As Moon described, however, getting the right amount of oils has been a process of trial and error.
7. Choose colors wisely
Bright colors can also cause sensory over-stimulation. For this reason, planners should create a neurodivergent space that incorporates neutral or muted color palettes. Moon said that with EventWell’s quiet rooms, they generally use pastel colors in decor — even when designing brochures for the space with their logo.
ENGAGEMENT AND INTERACTION
8. Be open to feedback
When planning a neuro-inclusive event, it is crucial to ask questions and be open to feedback before, during, and after an event — this will, however, need to be carried out with care and consideration. Examples could include sending out an anonymous survey or having people stationed onsite to receive feedback.
9. Provide session recordings and transcripts
Many event tech providers can now provide subtitles and recordings of sessions, which can contribute to better DEI at events, including for neurodivergent people. Another option to add is readily available transcripts for sessions. These transcripts are for those who learn better by reading and having more autonomy over the process. Similarly, providing tables to write on will help support those who benefit from note taking.
10. Create predictability and communicate directly
Many neurodivergent people prefer predictability to cope and function. Planners can meet this need by building accessibility into all of their event communication materials, including signage, agendas, and venue plans. All of these resources should be highly visible, readily available, and plainly worded.
In addition, agendas designed for neuro-inclusive events should be direct (lose the jargon) and include all the necessary information such as session times and details, where to go, and who to contact in case of an emergency. Auditory options would also add value, so people can listen to what they need to know.
11. Ensure trained staff is available
Consider training your event staff in the needs of neuro-divergent attendees; another option is to partner with an agency that provides staffing with specialized training. EventWell, for example, supplies trained staff who can be stationed at event quiet rooms and other areas. Having this support structure in place gives neurodivergent attendees the peace of mind that comes from knowing trained people will be available to assist if needed. Another strategy could be to implement an optional buddy system for neurodivergent people to meet and network with others of like mind, reducing social anxiety.
12. Generate awareness
To create a neuro-inclusive event environment, planners must generate awareness of what neuro-inclusivity is and why it is important. One option is to implement bands or stickers that demonstrate people’s willingness to engage — red for “don’t approach” and green for “open to networking” — while explaining the reason behind such measures.
This awareness must also consider the difference in inclusive language used, like identity-first or person-first language; for example, the phrase “an autistic person” emphasizes the condition, whereas “a person with autism” emphasizes the person. Many neurodivergent people prefer identity-first language as opposed to person-first language, as an individual cannot separate themselves from something that influences every facet of their lives. Planners should engage with neurodivergent attendees on this matter or seek further guidance on this topic by reaching out to professionals in the space.
Further, in dealing with awareness, Lance concludes that essentially, people cannot be separated from their autism or being neurodivergent, “Expecting neurodivergent people to continue to operate and accommodate in a neurotypical environment further perpetuates the stigma of mental health and disclosure.”
While inclusivity and the effort to create safe spaces in events are nothing new, perhaps as an industry, we are now ready to work at leveling up our ability to meet these goals. Moon’s industry vision means moving from, “Do you have a quiet room?” to, “Where is your quiet room?”
Being neuro-inclusive also doesn’t begin and end with attendees only — many successful and influential event professionals are neurodivergent. So, by including neurodiverse attendees, it will also give those working in this space the ability to speak up and provide insight into co-creating neuro-inclusive events with new content, speakers, and settings.
Remember, being neurodivergent does not mean “less than.” Instead, it means being different from what is considered typical. And difference and diversity can contribute to authentic, rich, and value-packed interactions and experiences.
Some of the featured ideas come from resources online — like Reframing Austim’s guide to hosting inclusive events, Amanda Kirby and the Neurodiversity and Sensory Friendly Guide — in addition to professional interview sources and direct experience with neurodivergency.