Neurodiversity: How to Improve Your Events & Conferences for Neurodiverse Participants
Neurodiversity inclusion is vital for the future of the events industry. But how can you make your events more accessible for neurodiverse participants? Learn more right here from the team at ACC Liverpool.
The discussion around diversity, equality, and inclusivity (DEI) has become increasingly important across several sectors, from education and entertainment to the workplace and, of course, event planning. Whilst this (rightly) focuses on race, gender, and sexuality, it’s also essential that these efforts ensure the inclusion and accommodation for neurodiversity.
But what does it mean to be neurodiverse, and how can you improve your events to make them more inclusive for neurodiverse participants? Keep reading to learn more…
What is neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity was coined in the 1990s by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, as a way to step back from the traditional concepts of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ brain function. Instead, since no two people experience the world in the same way, the aim is to focus on how a person’s interpretation and understanding of the world can be affected by their brain function.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term to cover a wide range of neurological conditions, including (but not limited to):
- Autism, or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Dyspraxia, or DCD (Developmental Coordination Disorder)
- Tourette’s syndrome
Neurodiversity as a term aims to change the perception of these neurological variations as something to be recognised, celebrated and respected in individuals, rather than something that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’.
The opposite of neurodivergent neurology is ‘neurotypical’. This is used to describe someone whose brain functions, like their interaction with and understanding of the world, is considered ‘typical’ or standard within society.
Note: Be aware of your language choice when referencing neurodiversity. Some people prefer person-first language (e.g. a person with autism), whilst others choose to use identity-first language to self-identify (an autistic person). Both of these are valid, and largely fall into personal preference. If you’re ever unsure how someone would prefer to identify – ask them.
Why is neurodiverse inclusion important?
It’s estimated that around 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent in the UK. This equates to roughly 15-20% of the population, or about 13 million people.
With this in mind, it’s vital that we create events and spaces where everyone’s unique neurological function can be respected, appreciated, and included. Neurological variations are something to be celebrated, and designing inclusive practices is one of the best ways to show respect to everyone.
Professionally, accepting and accommodating neurodiversity in the workplace can have a huge impact on how your business or event performs. Neurodivergent people have different viewpoints and can offer alternative ways of thinking about a topic.
Plus, many qualities that are common in neurodiverse people, like hyperfocus, attention to detail, information retention, and object visualisation, are often seen as advantageous and desirable within a professional context.
Socially, becoming more inclusive towards neurodiversity gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy and engage with society in a way that’s safe and respectful.
How to accommodate neurodiversity at events
Neurodiverse people face challenges everyday in a world that often isn’t designed to accommodate their needs. So, how can you adapt your event or conference to make it more inclusive towards neurodiverse participants? In this section, we’ll explain several methods that will help you recognise and incorporate measures for neurodiverse needs during your event planning.
Consult neurodiverse people
The most important thing you can do to accommodate neurodiverse participants at events is to ask them what they need, and involve them in the planning process.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ measure for accommodating neurodiverse needs, so it’s worth consulting with a variety of people about what measures will work for them. In fact, there are plenty of small changes that you may not initially think of, but that can have a big impact on someone with autism, or ADHD.
Involving neurodiverse people at every stage of your event’s life cycle also helps to show you’re taking it seriously. Representation matters. If potential attendees can see that people like them have been involved from the start, they may be more willing to give your event a chance and engage with you.
Collaborate with neurodiverse advocacy groups
If you’re unsure about who to contact, there are various advocacy groups in the UK who can help you when you’re planning an event. Below is just a short list of some groups you may wish to consult:
- National Autistic Society
- ADHD UK - Neurodiversity Alliance programme
- The ADHD Foundation Neurodiversity Charity
- The Daisy Chain Project
Invite neurodiverse speakers
Inclusion should happen at every stage of the event - not just for participants. So, alongside working with neurodiverse people in the planning stages, you should always consider inviting neurodiverse speakers where possible.
The best people to talk about neurodiversity are those who experience it every day. Inviting neurodivergent speakers offers you a level of expertise, understanding, and even creative thinking that can add a lot of value to your event or conference.
This also has the effect of creating a more understanding event culture, which can help make others aware of neurological differences. This in turn can help attendees be more respectful of different behaviours that are common for some neurodiverse people (e.g. stimming of various kinds).
Top tip - depending on your conference or event, you should make space in the programme to discuss neurodiverse inclusion within your industry - preferably with a neurodivergent speaker.
Release event information early
One common aspect of neurodiversity is that people can struggle with change, the unknown, or a lack of routine.
By releasing your event information early, potential attendees have more time to prepare. This could be by creating or adapting a routine or schedule, visiting the venue early so they’re more familiar with the location, or any additional measures that can help participants comfortably engage with the conference or event.
At ACC Liverpool, our Virtual Tour can help people with neurodiversity requirements check out the venue in advance and become familiar with our location.
Releasing event information early also allows you time to alter or adapt anything before the start of the session. This could be because of feedback, or changes to the schedule due to attendee interest.
Keep your information up-to-date
Alongside releasing information early, you should keep any relevant information as up-to-date as possible. Changes to routine or accepted plans can be especially difficult for people with autism, as they often rely on schedules to keep regulated. By keeping your event information current, neurodiverse participants have plenty of time to react and find a solution to match their needs.
5. Use various communication methods
Diverse neurology affects how people interpret and understand information. By using a variety of communication methods, you can reach a wider audience and engage with them in a way that will work best with their needs.
For example, people with dyslexia struggle with reading passages of text, so too much written communication can be off putting. Using videos or images to announce and explain different aspects of your event can help you engage more with your audience.
Top tip - use accessible fonts for any written communication, as this can help with reading comprehension. Avoid cursive fonts as these can blur together and are harder to read.
Take advantage of interactive technology
Technology can be an excellent tool for inclusion. Apps, private messaging, and online forums are often the preferred form of communication for some neurodivergent people, as they don’t rely on interpreting body language or social cues. You can also be more direct, which can negate or reduce confusion (especially for autistic people).
Similarly, videos and interactive interfaces can help you share information in a digestible format. Interactive floor plans on the day are more accessible for visual learners, or those who struggle with written information.
Use alternative Q&A methods
Alternative communication methods also come in handy for Q&A portions of your conference. For example, offering a live forum or messaging service allows people to ask questions without the pressure of needing to speak in front of everyone at the event.
Removing this anxiety can help neurodiverse (and neurotypical) people to engage more with the event without feeling singled out.
6. Clarify venue accessibility
Accessibility is an essential part of making sure your event is suitable for neurodiverse participants. By providing clear, concise information about your Venue Accessibility, you can reduce a lot of anxiety for your neurodiverse participants - especially if they have specific accessibility requirements.
One way you can do this is to release a brief summary of where your venue is, how to get there (including public transport networks, parking, or taxi information), and any other relevant information - like hearing loops, step-free access and more.
Top tip - you should also include additional information about toilet availability, refreshment stations, and menus to allow participants to properly prepare.
7. Offer flexible seating options
Another way to open up your event to neurodiverse participants is to offer alternative seating options.
People with ADHD may struggle to stay still for an extended period of time, but often feel pressure not to be seen as ‘disruptive’ - and end up avoiding certain situations altogether. By offering different seating models, like a designated area for standing, or well-spaced chairs, you can allow people to move around as they need during a session.
You may also want to consider offering different seating options, like bean bags instead of chairs. This can help people who are sensitive to different sensory experiences find a comfortable spot to enjoy the event.
A note on stimming
Stimming is frequently seen in neurodiverse people. According to The National Autistic Society, stimming, or self-stimulating behaviours, include:
“arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements…[the] repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or twirling a piece of string, or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture).”
It is often movement-based, which has caused it to get a reputation for being ‘disruptive’ or ‘annoying’. However, this is usually a self-soothing method, a way to decompress, or in reaction to emotions like stress, anxiety, and even excitement.
Putting measures in place to accommodate stimming can have a big impact on how neurodiverse people perceive your event. For example, you could offer different fidget cubes or toys, which will allow people to express themselves comfortably during your event.
Note - stimming isn’t always movement-based. It can be verbal as well, like with the repetition of certain words or noises.
8. Be aware of sensory triggers
People with neurodiverse conditions often have stronger reactions to sensory stimuli. This could be anything from sensitivity to loud and/or unexpected noises, bright lights and colours, to strong odours, and different textures.
Being mindful of sensory triggers can help you plan your event around them, and help people avoid overstimulation where possible. Here are some simple suggestions that can make a big difference in making neurodiverse people more comfortable at your event:
- Lower the volume of backing music, or avoid using it altogether.
- Offer quiet hours with fewer people attending.
- Adjust the warmth and brightness of your event lighting.
- Use muted colours where possible.
- Avoid strong smelling foods.
Note – food is a common sensory issue with neurodivergent people, especially with textures. You should consider offering an additional space for neurodiversity dietary requirements.
9. Create quiet spaces
Quiet spaces are key for many people with neurodiverse needs. This allows them time and space away from the main concourse to decompress, and reset their personal ‘social batteries’.
You should always aim to have any quiet spaces slightly away from the main concourse of your event to allow people a chance to get away from too much sensory stimulation - but they shouldn’t be so far removed from the event that it seems like an afterthought.
Quiet spaces, or sensory reset rooms, should be primarily muted colours, with multiple options for seating to accommodate for different neurodiverse needs.
Top tip - make sure people know about your quiet spaces, and allow people to use them at their own discretion.
At ACC Liverpool, our Connected Campus can be reconfigured into multiple distinct spaces, which can allow you to set aside space for a quiet room where necessary.
10. Allow for pre-scheduled meetings
As we mentioned above, some neurodiverse people find social situations difficult or draining because they struggle to understand nuances or specific social cues that are easier for neurotypical people to pick up on. This often leads to social anxiety, and an avoidance of social situations.
By offering the opportunity for people to pre-schedule meetings for networking or information, you can remove a lot of the uncertainty that comes with networking. You could also offer the ability for people to connect via bespoke chatrooms for the event. Some neurodiverse people prefer online communication, as it allows them to think through their responses, and doesn’t rely on decoding body language.
Pre-scheduled meetings, or online meeting forums, allow everyone to connect socially when and where they wish, and allows participants to build valuable relationships with other attendees in a way that suits their needs.
11. Provide additional materials
Providing additional materials and information packets before the event can help neurodiverse people focus on the event or conference material.
Where possible, try to include copies of slides, session transcripts, and other useful materials beforehand. This allows participants to familiarise themselves with the content and be more present on the actual day of the event.
You may also want to consider offering useful measures like ear plugs, fidget toys, and other sensory coping mechanisms to help your neurodiverse participants. This has the added benefit of making attendees feel valued, and welcomed within a space that can sometimes feel alienating.
2. Offer a hybrid events model
As we’ve learned within the industry over the past few years, a hybrid events model has loads of benefits in terms of cost and emissions reduction. But it’s also incredibly valuable when it comes to inclusion.
Events and conferences can be incredibly overwhelming for neurodiverse participants - there is a lot of sensory input and stimulation, plenty of people, and they can be a big change in routine that it’s hard to accommodate.
However, a hybrid model can cut through a lot of this and allow neurodiverse attendees to engage with and participate in the event or conference from the comfort and safety of their own space.
Learn more about How to Host a Hybrid Conference or Event from ACC Liverpool.
13. Provide staff with additional training
A huge part of making events more inclusive and appealing for neurodiverse participants is through creating an accepting and respectful atmosphere for people to succeed and thrive in.
This is why, where possible, you should provide your staff with additional training on neurodiversity, including what it is and how they can help foster the right atmosphere at your events or conferences.
Additional training about neurodiversity in the workplace can help your staff be more understanding, and prove to neurodiverse attendees (including participants, speakers, and planning staff) that you care about their wellbeing.
14. Ask for feedback
Learning is a huge part of event planning, and feedback is one of the best ways to improve your events because you can connect with attendees and understand what they felt about their experience.
This is especially true for creating welcoming and inclusive conference environments for neurodiverse attendees. By offering anonymous surveys online, or in person, you can create a space for people to share what went well and what could be done to improve next time.
Encouraging and accepting feedback will help you create actionable steps for your next event, and prove to participants that you take any inclusion efforts sincerely - which can build trust over time.
Top tip - remember, you won’t get everything right the first time. But this is okay, as long as you’re willing to learn and grow to make your events experience even better the next time.
Our top tips for neurodiverse inclusion
It’s essential to understand that every neurodiverse person is different - what one person finds useful may not help someone else. Therefore, alongside incorporating alternative measures within the planning of your event, we’ve included some of our top tips to create a more welcoming and inclusive event atmosphere for neurodiverse attendees.
Be clear: Clarity is key when it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace, and at events and conferences. Make sure that any information you share is clear and easy to understand, and shared in multiple formats to include everyone.
Attitude matters: How you approach a situation will inform how others react. If you approach neurodiverse inclusion with an open and respectful attitude, you’ll be more likely to succeed, and positively engage new attendees.
Follow through: Always do what you say you will for neurodiversity inclusion. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, as this can lead to challenging and negative experiences for neurodiverse participants.
Keep trying: You will make mistakes - this is unavoidable. But by remaining accountable, and consistently working on each issue as it arises, you can improve your events for neurodivergent attendees.
Plan your next event with ACC Liverpool
Looking to plan your next event or conference? Speak to a member of Our Events Team to find out how ACC Liverpool can help you. Explore our Hybrid Capabilities, IT Options, or consult our Production Team on how you can make your event a success.
For more information, and the latest news from right here in Liverpool, check out our ACC Liverpool News and Events Hub…