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Autism conferences: who do they really help, and how autistic-friendly are they?

If you're reading this article, odds are you've either already attended, or have considered attending an "autism conference" of some sort.  However, the vast majority of these conferences are actually highly inaccessible to many autistic people, for numerous reasons, and there's even the occasional one here and there that will be either overtly or subtly hostile to the notion of people on the spectrum attending.  Inaccessibility issues often stem from the fact that these conferences are designed primarily for neurotypicals, with no thought given to the possibility of autistic attendees.  In short, the major problems with these conferences is that they are designed to be like any other conference.  This excludes a significant number of autistic people by disregarding the fact that crowded rooms, a constant din of chatter mixed with small talk, thunderous and/or echoing applauses, and often-cramped seating arrangements in workshops and seminars, all will tend to work against the average autistic conference-goer by assaulting their senses far beyond the point of overload, thwarting any networking attempts as a result of the constant fear of being humiliated by even the slightest faux-pas, and often, especially if there's a "panel", there is often the sense that the autistic people at the conference are "on display", almost as though they were pets or circus animals, performing tricks for the entertainment of an NT audience simply by attending, speaking, and having opinions, as though that were somehow an impressive feat.  Of course, even with all these hurdles, and the sheer humiliation that can come from appearing on a panel (though that isn't always a given), it is quite clear that most of this is not intentional on the part of the conference organizers.

NT culture simply isn't the same as autistic culture, and this lack of cross-communication results in a divide.  For comparison, one could examine a conference organized, operated, and attended primarily by autistic people.  The only such conference in North America is Autreat.  Autreat, however, is unlike any other "autism conference", and indeed, unlike any other "conference" a neurotypical is likely to have attended.  It was started in 1996 by Autism Network International as a response to the fact that despite the emerging virtual autistic community, there was no physical gathering for and by autistic people, other than the occasional small space at an "autism conference" set aside by an NT-dominated organization that simply didn't have the means to learn about the nascent autistic community's concerns or emerging identity at the time.  Since then, Autreat has become THE physical gathering of the greater autistic community in North America, a five-day conference in which social interactions, lodging, meals, seminars, and everything else have been structured in a way that's focused on making sure that nobody needs to feel the need to exclude themselves, and that nobody is pressured in any way.  With presentations on various issues of concern to the community (many of which are given by people on the spectrum), ranging from lectures on how to improve one's own executive functioning skills to informational talks on the various pseudoscience fads in the "autism community", there's something of interest to just about every attendee, and that's not even including the evening discussions that are sometimes proposed and set up ad-hoc during the conference itself!  Certificates indicating that you've received education on various issues, as well as continuing education credits are also available each year, and offer a powerful incentive to professionals to attend and be exposed to a bit of role-reversal for the first time.  The most popular feature at Autreat, however, is an annual tradition called the "Ask an NT panel", a half-joking and half-serious reversal of the traditional panels of autistic people at autism conferences done at the conclusion of every Autreat, in which a panel of neurotypical conference attendees talk about their life experiences, what their time at Autreat was like for them (for many, it is the first and only time they've been in an autistic-oriented setting), and then answer questions from the primarily-autistic audience.  Concluding remarks often include commentary on their experience of being on the panel itself, though all efforts are made to ensure that it is a positive experience for all.

In all, the differences between Autreat and other conferences stem from their intentions and their focuses.  Unlike any other "autism conference" on the continent, Autreat is explicitly intended to have autistic people as its primary audience, and orients itself around them.  While not all conferences can be expected to go that far, their organizers could learn quite a bit about how to be more accommodating by observing how they go about things, and how they go out of their way to be inclusive, rather than just following neurotypical societal standards without thought to the ways their conference's culture and environment inadvertently excludes and violates the very people they claim to be trying to help.  By taking that extra time to think, to consider, to ask questions of autistic self-advocates, they can and will learn more.  Many on the spectrum are more than willing to relate their experiences, and provide what help they can, if only they were asked.  However, if asked, there will be an expectation that their words will be heeded.  After all, these are very real issues of accessibility, and they aren't covered under the ADA.  They do require that some non-essential aspects of the program are changed, but they are aspects so basic that most neurotypicals don't even realize that they exist unless they've studied psychology or sociology.  However, to the autistic, they are the greatest barriers of all, and are the most vital to address.


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