Autistic Future
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.