“You cannot interact with the autistic community or the trans community without interacting with both.”
Living in a society designed for neurotypical individuals can be very exhausting and overwhelming for autistic people, not unlike the stress and exhaustion of living in a binary world for many trans folks. Especially because most services are tailored to autistic kids, it can be hard for autistic adults to find resources to help them. Similar to any other issue of privilege, neurotypical individuals—those who think, perceive, and behave in ways that are considered to be “normal” by the general population—often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one or the only correct one. Embracing neurodiversity means that perceptual and developmental variety such as autism is not a disorder to be cured, but instead difference to be respected. The identity-first language preferred by autistic advocates (“autistic person” rather than “person with autism”) recognizes autism as an inherent and meaningful part of an individual’s identity, not unlike their sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to ASAN, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (https://autisticadvocacy.org/), core aspects of being autistic include:
- unique sensory experiences
- uncommon ways of learning and approaching problems
- deeply focused thinking and passionate interest in specific subjects
- a need for consistency, routine, and order
- difficulties understanding and expressing typical communication/social interaction
All of these factors highly impact participation in GALA choruses. Some create challenges to participation, such as sensory overwhelm, while others—like the deep focus and passionate interest characteristic of autistic people—can be tremendous assets in activities such as learning music. Involvement in choral communities can be tremendously nourishing for autistic people. Especially given the high degree of overlap between autism and gender non-conformity (at least 8% of trans communities consist of autistic individuals, in part because autistic people tend to be less influenced by societal norms and expectations), how can we create spaces more welcoming to autistic individuals?
Autistic and other neurodivergent people are more likely to notice aspects of the physical environment that neurotypical people don’t. For many, there is no such thing as background noise because it is all right there demanding attention. Due to the ways that sensory processing can be overwhelming and challenging for autistic people (as well as many others with accessibility needs), here are some things to be aware of in our rehearsal and performance spaces and choral procedures:
Natural or dimmer lighting is preferred, and fluorescent lights are highly distracting, especially if they are buzzing. Bright lights can be a barrier not only to autistic people but also those with migraines. Brighter light can be needed by people with age-related vision loss or those using ASL interpreting, however, so conversation may be needed about balancing access needs, or innovative solutions can be implemented, such as individualized lighting (for example, book lights for people needing more light) or different lighting in different sections.
Flashing lights are often a barrier for autistic people, and can be dangerous for people with epilepsy and migraines (both of which overlap with autism). Do not use flashing light effects, flash lights to get people’s attention, or visit social venues with strobing lights.
Auditory processing can be challenging. It can be difficult to comprehend what is being said, so navigating conversations—especially group conversations—can be tricky or taxing. Autistic people can become quickly overwhelmed in loud restaurants and spaces where there are multiple conversations going on at once or where tv or music is happening in the background. There can be difficulty tracking multiple sources of stimulus simultaneously so autistic people can struggle with being able to concentrate on one sense while paying attention to another, which is why autistic folks might not look at people while listening to them.
Captioning (such as CART: Computer Aided Real Time Translation) can be very helpful to make concerts and other events more accessible, and social gatherings held in quieter spaces can facilitate participation. Providing earplugs in noisy environments can also help some autistic people, as well as creating a culture of allowing ear plug and headphone use so that people feel comfortable meeting their sensory needs.
For some, being able to discern tone differences when the sound volume changes can be difficult, impacting one’s ability to learn music. Tuning is often difficult and may require more assistance, time, and patience. However, other people experience perfect pitch, and may need to exit during tuning.
Autistic people can be unaware of their bodies in space (proprioception) and so can often feel uneasy in public spaces. Navigating a crowded restaurant or a packed auditorium can be an anxiety-producing nightmare for an autistic person. If possible, leave space between seats or remove every other chair in public spaces to allow more freedom of movement. Autistic people also often appreciate different seating options, so providing both soft and hard seats, seats of different sizes, with and without tilt or wheels, and especially with and without armrests—as well as inviting people in rehearsals to sit on the floor or stand—can be very helpful.
While touch input (feeling one’s body against a surface or different seating textures) can be helpful to some autistic individuals to receive sensory feedback to help orient their bodies in space, it is very important to not touch autistic people without their permission. Many can be easily startled and often have a history of trauma (according to Joelle Maslak, 70% of autistic adults have reported feeling sexually victimized, for instance).
Autistic people can have specific needs with regards to clothing (some desire the compression of tighter clothing while others need a looser fit, various types of fabric or tags on clothing can be irritating), which will need to be accommodated in considerations of performance attire. In particular, it can be challenging for gender expansive autistic people to find clothing appropriate to both their gender and their sensory needs. Allowing options (for example, a black shirt of any fabric, long or short sleeves) can reduce barriers.
Many autistic people experience disorienting effects from overwhelming scents, and there is also a high overlap with respiratory, allergy, and chemical sensitivity challenges. Instituting a fragrance-free policy or asking participants not to wear fragrances is an important part of access for many people. One really good resource to recommend in diverse (femme-inclusive and POC-inclusive) spaces is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha’s http://brownstargirl.org/fragrance-free-femme-of-colour-genius/
Autistic individuals can have food issues related to texture, flavor (some can’t tolerate spicy food, while others need food to be spicy), and food allergies/sensitivities. So having a wide variety of different choices for food can make events feel more welcoming and eating at places which can accommodate specific diets/meal requests is important.
Create zones within rehearsal and performance spaces where people can go as needed to rest from interaction when they are feeling overstimulated. And it’s important to not only provide quiet zones at the edges of interaction, but also in the middle of action as many autistic folks would like to be near the interaction but not directly participating. Create and state a social norm that “participating” can mean observing, talking, silence, breaks, stimming, or movement.
Do specifically invite autistic people into conversations and give them time and space to respond. When they are slow to respond, people frequently think they have nothing to say and talk over them. Specifically asking autistic community members questions, both one on one and in group conversations, can offer space and invitation to get them talking. Passing around an object to indicate who has the floor to speak can also give an autistic person greater permission to participate in a group conversation.
Informal means of meeting people—such as an unstructured snack break during rehearsal—will not help most autistic people to be able to connect, so offer structured means of interaction, such as sharing around a circle where everyone has a turn. If possible, post icebreaker questions ahead of time so that autistic individuals have a chance to reflect on their answer prior to engagement and, if doing a pair share activity, make sure the autistic person is matched with someone with whom they feel comfortable. Arrange planned extracurricular social events outside of choir rehearsals and performances (like a movie night, game night, or ice cream social) to allow autistic folks to interact with fellow choir members in ways other than attending rehearsals and performances. If it is part of the choir culture to meet up informally after rehearsals or performances, make sure that autistic people get a clear explicit invitation.
Create a “no one stands alone” policy to facilitate new people and autistic folks feeling welcomed. Autistic people can feel new at all times, even if they have been attending rehearsals for a while, because it can be difficult for them to make friends. If they are standing alone observing everyone else having conversations, someone coming over to talk with them could allow them to feel included instead of lost or anxious.
Many choruses have a mentoring program in place, especially for new singers. Such a person could be an advocate for the autistic individual and help to integrate them into conversations and community, assist in finding resources, and perhaps meet up outside of choir functions so the autistic person feels more included in the choir community. If there is not an official mentoring program, consider designating a couple people to go to with specific types of questions (for instance, contact Joe about rehearsals) and include photos of the people designated.
Autistic people can struggle with non-verbal communication, picking up on the social cues of others as well as effectively conveying their own needs and preferences. Some can appear as though they’d prefer to be left alone, but can actually be quite lonely and craving social interaction but unable to initiate it. To facilitate direct communication of preferences, choruses can institute color coding (say by adding a colored ribbon to nametags). GREEN indicates that I welcome people initiating conversation with me (and may have difficulty creating that on my own). YELLOW means that I would like to engage in conversation, but only people who I feel comfortable with should initiate communication with me. And RED conveys please don’t initiate conversation with me because I’m feeling overstimulated or not feeling social and would like to be left alone. Obviously indicating such preferences, say during rehearsals, could be helpful for everyone, not just autistic people. And color preferences will be highly variable for many people from week to week—even moment by moment, situation by situation—so the means of conveying one’s color preferences needs to be non-permanent.
Consider providing a directory or contact list, so that autistic community members can contact others outside of choir. Many autistic people have anxiety around phone calls, so providing different forms of contacting people (such as email, text) would be useful. And the directory could include people’s preferred way of being contacted, for instance, “I like being contacted by text” or “I have no preferences.”
It can be difficult for autistic people to go places, whether unknown or familiar, on their own without a support person, so consider welcoming family members or friends—supportive people in the autistic person’s life—into rehearsal spaces or backstage during performance preparation. This could also include emotional support animals. Having items to fidget with can also really help to reduce anxiety for autistic people so allow autistic individuals opportunities to fidget during rehearsal.
Facial recognition can be challenging for some autistic people (prosopagnosia), so inviting singers to gather in the lobby or come up after a session to ask questions, receive more information, or sign up for something can cause shut down and overwhelm for some autistic people. Use nametags and introductions generously (offering frequent reassurance that they are talking to who they think they are talking to) and when arranging meeting locations, be very specific about where and when. Verbal instructions can be difficult for autistic people, so provide written instructions that are clear and easy to follow. Visual aids that use pictures rather than words can be very helpful as well.
Have frequent and clear signage at concerts and other events, reassuring people that they are in the right place. Where processes are required, say for choir tour, make each step clear through written instructions. Let people know exactly what’s going to happen and what they need to bring. Offer checklists and flow charts about what needs to be done and when, especially since text more than a paragraph long can be difficult to process for autistic folks. Post on your website photos of buildings and rooms so that autistic people can prepare themselves for new and potentially overwhelming experiences and have reassurance that they are on the right track. Autistic people may not always know what others may take for granted, say involving unwritten social rules, so clear expectations can be welcomed.
Some autistic people don’t drive, so may have difficulties getting to rehearsals and performances. Carpooling or public transport can be challenging due to anxiety/social anxiety, so having a contact list or buddy system can be helpful in managing the logistics of choir participation.
Autistic people can have stress and anxiety about overnight trips/choir tours because there are many unknown factors and access barriers in traveling to an unfamiliar area: sleeping arrangements, food, getting around an unfamiliar place, flying or driving with new people. It would be helpful to talk to autistic singers about their needs and accommodations before embarking on a choir tour/overnight trip. During the overnight trip/tour, it would be helpful for someone (a buddy, section leader, choir director) to check in with them periodically to see how they are doing.
Similar to trans singers, autistic people often lack stable employment, so scholarships and tiered cost structures, with alternatives such as volunteering, can be important to facilitate participation, as well as keeping in mind costs for transportation, food, and accommodations when choosing venues for choir events and social gatherings.
Many autistic folks also have other types of accessibility challenges, and many people with other types of accessibility concerns are also impacted by sensory processing factors. Therefore, thinking about our sensory and communication environments needs to take into account cross-disability accessibility.
If you are neurotypical it can be very hard to anticipate many of the challenges that can be present for a neurodivergent singer, board member, or audience member at rehearsals, concerts, meetings, and social gatherings. Hopefully these concrete suggestions can help you identify, foresee, and solve relevant accessibility issues. If possible, it is helpful to involve chorus members affected by such issues in preparation for choral gatherings to make them as welcoming as possible.
Resources for further exploration
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN): https://autisticadvocacy.org/
- Autism FAQs: https://www.autistichoya.com/p/introduction-to-autism-faqs-of-autism.html
- Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN): https://awnnetwork.org/
- Autism and Race: https://autismandrace.com/
- Trans autistic people: https://autisticadvocacy.org/2016/06/autistic-self-advocacy-network-lgbt-groups-release-statement-on-needs-of-trans-autistic-people/
- Neurowonderful: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9Bk0GbW8xgvTgQlheNG5uw
- Rooted in Rights: https://rootedinrights.org/
- Autistic Hoya blog: https://www.autistichoya.com/
- LGBT autistic people: https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/need-respect-sexual-orientation-gender-diversity-autism/
- Making Our Choruses More Accessible for Autistic People - July 23, 2019
- Raven’s True Self - December 23, 2018
- Phoenix, Colorado’s Trans Community Choir - September 4, 2017