March 6th, 2017

How to Have an Okay Autism Conference

an empty auditorium is full of chairs. there is a stage with a podium and blackboard at the front. a projector hangs from the ceiling

Conference Season is Coming

April is coming up, and with it, autism conferences. If you’re Autistic, you probably know how fraught these events can be. If you’re not, you may not be aware of that because disabled conference speakers don’t always speak up. Some people may be afraid to acknowledge problems. Others may find translating the indignities of being a disabled conference speaker from disabled to mainstream culture and experience too overwhelming or exhausting try. Putting up with painful or uncomfortable things is sometimes easier than explaining them to nondisabled people in hopes that they will change. The challenge is that certain forms of disabled conference speaker-hood can be dehumanizing. Being an Autistic speaker sometimes being questioned about personal matters in front of large crowds of strangers, being asked to explain the behavior of Autistic strangers not present, and being expected to politely ignore any dangerous, quack autism treatments on display. It usually involves exposure to condescension, assumptions about Autistic people, inspiration porn, and repeating autism 101 information over and over again. It almost always involves feeling scrutinized like an animal in the zoo and being in close contact with the representatives of groups with which the Autistic community has a troubled history.

If you’re an Autistic person expecting to speak at a conference for the first time this spring, it would be wise of you to prepare yourself to encounter things that may not be pleasant for you. Be wary of the possibility that you will be tokenized or that people will want you to tell stories that confirm their existing assumptions. Be prepared to be insistent about what you actually want to say. If you’re a conference organizer, there are things you can do to make the experience of participating better for Autistics and other disabled people. Hopefully, you will do so because you want Autistic people comfortable at your conference, because you believe in “nothing about us without us.” You should also consider how speakers will describe the experience of working with you. Many advocates are tactful enough to do that in private, but they will almost invariably tell friends, acquaintances, and colleagues throughout the disability community how they were treated. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to get this right:

1. Reasonable Accommodations

It should, but doesn’t always, go without saying that you should ask speakers whether they need accommodations. Don’t wait for people to speak up. Ask, then get those things in place well in advance. Double- and triple-check them. Make sure you have a point person ready to handle any problems that come up. Get this wrong and no one will remember anything you did right.

2. Watch Your Assumptions

Assumption is a human problem, but it is a problem. Vocalizing assumptions you make based on people’s identities is rude and will make people uncomfortable. Don’t show surprise when someone is articulate or competent. Don’t be startled that one of your speakers has a job, attends a good university, or drives a car. No reasonable disabled person will hate you forever for sticking your foot in your mouth once or twice, but it irritates us even when we shrug it off. Look for assumptions in your forms, your words to your speakers, and the way you structure your conference.

3. Do Unto Others

Treat your speakers with the respect with which you would want to be treated. Never impose terminology on a disabled person. Choices like whether to use person- or identity-first language are political. You wouldn’t want someone to correct you on what you have decided to call yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Be careful about using the term ‘self-advocate’ by itself. If the person in question has other qualifications, they belong in any verbal or written descriptions of the speaker. Don’t ignore people’s qualifications because they are disabled. Do unto others. Don’t ask speakers to answer questions that would make you uncomfortable in public (i.e. sex, toileting, etc.) unless they agree to do it well in advance, without being pressured, with opportunity to change their minds. Consider laying out ground rules before you let audiences ask questions that may get personal. Do unto others and insist that everyone treat your speakers with human dignity. If an audience member asks an offensively intrusive question, don’t be surprised or upset to hear an offended response.

4. Talk About Money

A lot of disabled people are poor, locked out of the workforce by insufficient supports, lack of access to education, or inhumane benefits policies. Despite the odds, a lot of disabled people are gainfully employed or are full-time students on the way to gainful employment. Give your speakers, employed and otherwise, the respect of treating their time as valuable. Recognize that you may lose out on good speakers who can’t afford to come to your event if you can’t at least cover the cost of attendance. Recognize that some of your speakers are probably foregoing wages, using leave time, or missing class to participate. Be very public about the availability of funds you can offer. People will feel more comfortable talking about  money if you make an announcement. Compensate your disabled speakers in the same way you do your other speakers. Look for money to cover low-income speakers’ costs, like travel and lodging, and talk to a lawyer if you have reason to worry about disrupting someone’s benefits. If you’re not paying your disabled speakers because they don’t have qualifications (formal education, professional credentials, or relevant experience), you’re probably not looking hard enough for well-qualified, disabled speakers.

5. Acknowledge Conflict

There isn’t one autism community. There is an Autistic community. There are parents and professionals. There is a troubled relationship between all three of these groups. Things are getting better as polite society increasingly pays lip service to the neurodiversity paradigm, but it isn’t over. Ableism and its consequences are still problems. Different stakeholders will always have different needs and priorities, and some people have still not come around to the idea that an Autistic life is a perfectly equal, valid way of being human. We can’t be “on the same side” of some important issues when we are working based on diametrically opposed sets of values. Autistic people have had to struggle against parents and professionals to have a culture and community. Even where our goals have a lot in common, anger and suspicion don’t dissipate overnight. Expecting people to be civil to each other when they are in the same place is reasonable so long as you extend that expectation to the way parents treat disabled people. You can’t run an event any other way. Expecting everyone to like each other is too much to ask. Expecting everyone to agree on all, or even most, important issues is wildly unrealistic. You help bring people together when you enforce respect. By doing that, you can make it more possible for people to talk instead of shouting past each other. Disabled activists will be more open if they know that parents and professionals are expected to be civil. What you can’t do is force the process. Reconciliation takes time.


What your Autistic speakers want, basically, is to be treated like people. If you can pull that off, you’re well on your way to hosting a reasonably pleasant conference.


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2 Comments On “How to Have an Okay Autism Conference”

  1. Your blog is currently included on our Actually Autistic Blogs List ( Please personalize your blog’s description by selecting “About the list/How do you want your blog listed?” from the top menu on that site.
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

    1. autisti9 says:

      Thank you! I appreciate your decision to include it. I’m always honored when something I run or started turns up on someone else’s resource list.