Read our Gallery Supervisors guide to working with and welcoming people with autism and sensory processing disorders.
Just over two years into our journey, we’re planning a capital project later this year to make our building more accessible and give a better visitor experience to all. We’re over the idea of open plan = open access. While this suited us at first, we’ve come to realise it’s actually quite limiting for access, taking more juggling of spaces, and the overspill of noise and hustle and bustle can be a nightmare for those with sensory disabilities in our team and our visitors.
We’ve grown alongside our experimental restaurant partner The Wilderness (even younger than us), usually booked up for lunches and evenings 3 months ahead and claiming the rightful spot of no.2 for Birmingham restaurants on Tripadvisor. In discussion with our landlords, designers at Faber Design and Architecture and Alessandro Columbano from Co.Lab, who originally designed the building, we’re gearing up for a second phase capital fit out later this year. It’s come sooner than we expected, but we have big ambitions for our autism-led front of house programme, and Wilderness have big ambitions for their customers, so we need to go for it.
We’re thinking through accessibility at every level from new lift access, new studio spaces, structural divisions to restaurant and new floor level, lighting, access guides, and allowing inclusion activism to drive our programme thinking. As part of this process we asked our Gallery Supervisor Susan Kruse, who is neurodivergent, to put together some notes on how to make BOM more autism friendly. We found this really helpful and as a result, we’re starting to put some things in place straight away, like attention to meetings, inter-communication, and creating a quiet space (I think we all need this from time to time and suspect it will probably increase all our productivity!). The more structural stuff will happen later this year.
Susan has kindly agreed to let us share her notes so that other organisations can benefit from insights into working with (and welcoming) people with spectrum disorders and sensory processing disorders. I hope you find it as useful as we do.
Karen Newman, BOM Director
Some suggestions for making BOM a more autistic friendly space.
Susan Kruse, Gallery Supervisor, BOM
I have put together a little bit of information about autistic people, briefly exploring some common traits and some things that autistic people may have difficulty with (and the things they might be brilliant at!). This is followed by some suggestions for making BOM more autism friendly and a list of links that might be interesting.
“When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
The Autism Spectrum:
It’s important to remember that, like allistic (non autistic) people, autistic people are all individuals with their own quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Autism is called a spectrum condition because autistic people often have other ‘co-morbid’ conditions, which can present an increasingly complex range of behaviours and difficulties/disabilities. Some autistic people do have learning difficulties, but autism itself is a developmental disability and autistic people may have normal to even genius level IQs (again, like allistic people).
Most autistic people do not process language in the same way as allistic people; many (but not all) autistic people are visual thinkers and have to translate the visual images in their heads into spoken language. Sometimes this means that an autistic person will come across as a bit slow as they do this translation process. However, the ability to think in pictures means that autistic people can be brilliant and fast problem solvers, (image worth 1000 words etc).
What every autistic person has in common is an inability to instinctively read body language and subtle facial expressions. Autistic people also have difficulty processing questions, instructions, metaphors etc. This means that face-to-face communication is very difficult for autistic people.
Additionally, most autistic people will struggle to make eye contact with you. This may be because they are trying to ‘listen’ to what you are saying and cannot do that and look at your face too. Some autistic people have become adept at appearing to make eye contact by looking at the eyebrows or nose of the person they are talking to. Looking someone in the eyes can be an expression of deep trust from an autistic person.
Things that autistic people may find difficult:
Most autistic people are sensitive to sensory input, though this is not the case for all autistic people and each person has different sensitivities. However, it is quite likely that the autistic person you meet will experience problems with some or all of the following:
Noise volume: Some autistic people LOVE loud noises, many autistic people find noise difficult or painful. The majority of autistic people become distressed by sudden, unexpected noises.
Smell: Many autistic people may have difficulty with smells; perfumes and other strong smells being an issue.
Visual input: Many autistic people struggle to navigate visually cluttered spaces, physically and emotionally. Others love bright colours and visual chaos. It is quite common for autistic people to find certain colours uncomfortable; yellow is often experienced as a stressful colour.
Touch: Most autistic people have some form of tactile sensitivity. Often this relates to clothing, so it’s not a good idea to ask an autistic person to wear something unexpected (like a BOM t-shirt for instance). It’s probably never a good idea to touch an autistic person you don’t know. Some people can tolerate a handshake, most hate hugs, it’s best just not to go there.
(Of course autistic and allistic people both may have sensory issues. Everyone has a colour, smell, sound that they don’t much enjoy, but it is a question of degree. For autistic people it may be that these sensory dislikes cause real physical pain and intense emotional distress. )
Surprises: Because autistic people are often trying very hard to “keep it together” against the slings and arrows of heightened sensory input and concentrating on navigating human contact, surprises are a bad thing. Don’t do surprises.
If an autistic person is visiting your organisation it is a great idea to let them know ahead of time about the layout of the space and any sensory issues they might like to prepare for. Additionally, if you tell an autistic person that a meeting is going to happen at a given time, please try not to be late. Lateness counts as a surprise and can be distressing.
Black and White thinking – do what you say: Autistic people tend to think in black and white and struggle with the shades of grey that allistic people seem to have little difficulty with. Older autistics might learn to navigate grey waters, but younger autistic people will almost certainly not be able to do this. Therefore, if you say you are going to do something, or be somewhere at a certain time, then do it. If there are rules, stick to them and most importantly, say what you mean. Don’t hint, infer, imply, use complicated metaphor or attempt emotional games. The Campaign for Plain English could have been created with autistic people in mind.
Written v Verbal instruction: Autistic people have difficulty processing verbal instructions. However, many autistic people are hyperlexic and are brilliant at processing written language or may prefer to learn via visual aids (pictures/video etc). Often autistic people are also skilled at learning by doing.
If you need to give an autistic person instructions it is a great idea to also provide written instructions where possible or, of course, let the person take notes, allowing extra time for slow verbal processing.
Some things (some) autistic people do:
- Flap, or clap or twirl or jiggle or rock. It is sometimes called ‘Stimming.’ Most autistic people express emotion physically. This can mean they are happy or distressed. Here is a brilliant video of one autistic guy doing his thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXJH29250pk (BTW he is one of the greatest surfers in the world)
- Tell the truth. They can lie, but it’s rare.
- Stick to the rules. Sometimes it’s their own rules true, but generally autistic people always try to do the right thing.
- Concentrate. Fiercely.
- Gravitate towards patterns and are usually gifted at pattern recognition. This includes patterns of behaviour, patterns of activity etc. It can make them brilliant problem solvers.
- Laugh. Autistic people are funny. Mostly.
Making BOM Autism Friendly:
Recognise that every autistic person is an individual. If you are unsure how to support an autistic person, ask them. Do not assume you know what autism looks like!
- If you are inviting an autistic person into the space, emailing a short document explaining what to expect will be much appreciated.
- Be on time.
- Greet calmly and quietly.
- In meetings take regular breaks. Short, to-the-point meetings are likely to be better for autistic people that long, rambling meetings with lots of social chit chat.
- Don’t do social chit chat.
- Don’t stare. Most autistic people will try to make eye contact as we know it is good manners. Please reciprocate this by looking away from the autistic person regularly. It’s a great idea to have meetings side-by-side with an autistic person rather than face-to-face.
- Don’t invite autistic people into your organisation when there is building work going on.
- Be very clear what job that person needs to do. A written job spec in plain English is helpful. Autistic people think in black and white. They will take things literally so try to be clear what is required and do not expect that they will notice implied job requirements. They won’t.
- When you give an autistic person a task they will keep doing it until the job is done. If possible, try to give a list of jobs and the order in which they need to be completed. Autistic people tend not to be able to multi task successfully, or switch suddenly from one task to the next.
- It would be good to have a quiet space in your organisation – a room or space where people can get away from the noise and clutter. No strip lighting! This could be treated like a fag break for the mind, let the person know that it is okay to take a break into this space when needed but put a specific time frame on use (ie; 10 mins)
- Often, when an autistic person feels overwhelmed, speech becomes difficult. It is quite common for autistic people to experience episodes of mutism when stressed. Autistic workers and volunteers might like to use a red/yellow/green system to signal distress. This is commonly used at autistic-run social events. Green means “I am ok and can talk.” Yellow means “I am struggling and need you to give me time.” Red means “I am close to a meltdown/I cannot speak/I need to get away.”
- Many autistic people dislike person-first language (ie; ‘person with autism). Autism is an inherent part of a person, it is how they are wired. I think most of us would prefer it if you used the term ‘autistic person.’ If in doubt of course, ask.
Autism Friendly Events:
- Provide a short ‘welcome’ leaflet with a map showing loos, quiet space, exits and the times at which things are going to start and end.
- Provide a quiet space where people can go to de-frag from social interaction.
- Quiet is usually good. Sudden loud bangs and unexpected noises are bad. Hosting an autistic event in the gallery when the restaurant is open for instance, would probably not be a good idea.
- Know your audience. A group of adults with Asperger’s are not going to need the same level of support that a group of children will. All autistic people are not the same!
Great Internet Resources:
There is a growing community of autistic people sharing their experience and world-view online. If you want to know what it is like to be autistic this is the place to start. These people are articulate, political and passionate.