Conferences and People on the Autism Spectrum

There have been some recent discussions about issues related to the treatment of women at Free Software conferences, I’ve written posts about Aspie Social Skills and Free Software [1] and Empathy, Autism, and Geeks [2] about this. But of course discussion continued on how Aspies supposedly cause problems that no-one seems to be noticing.

Lisa of Chaotic Idealism wrote an interesting post about the NT social bias [3]. In summary NTs seem to think that Autism Spectrum Disorders are only about socialisation, not realising that for many people on the Spectrum it’s sensory issues that are their main problem. Social problems are exacerbated by sensory issues and other causes of stress, so I think it’s worth considering ways in which conferences can be planned to be less stressful for people on the Autism Spectrum, people who have SPD [4] that isn’t associated with an ASD, and NTs who just get annoyed by loud noises etc.

What Autism Conferences Do

Autscape is one of only two conferences for people on the Autism Spectrum and the only one which clearly documents how they plan their conference [5]. The first noteworthy thing that they do is have badge colors to indicate what level of social interaction is desired by each delegate, I don’t think that this is relevant to Free Software conferences as people who don’t have sufficient social skills to suit at least a green badge probably won’t be attending. But I think that when attending a conference about Free Software or any other equally geeky topic (if there is an equally geeky topic) it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that there are probably a lot of people who would like to talk to you but lack the social skills to start a conversation.

No initiation Red Please do not initiate any interaction with me.
Prior Permission Yellow Please do not initiate unless I have already given you permission to approach me on a yellow badge.
Please initiate Green I would like to socialise, but I have difficulty initiating. Please initiate with me.
Neutral White (or no badge) I am able to regulate my own interaction.

The next thing that they document is a black circle badge which indicates that the wearer shouldn’t be photographed. Prior to reading that web site I wasn’t aware of this being an Autistic issue, I was only aware of it being an issue for women who don’t want zoomed-in pictures of themselves appearing on guys web sites (even pictures that aren’t up-skirt or down-blouse can be unwelcome). A conference policy that prohibited photographs that zoom in on one person without that person’s consent (or parental consent in the case of minors) would probably be a good idea.

Another thing about badges is that it’s a really good idea to have the delegate’s name on both sides of the badge if the badge is attached in a way that permits it to turn. People on the Autism Spectrum tend to have some difficulty in recognising people and in remembering names. I find it inconvenient when someone expects me to recognise them but has their badge turned around so I can’t see their name. Some people get really unhappy if they think that someone doesn’t recognise them.

Autscape has long breaks between activities and a leisure session each afternoon to allow delegates to recover from the stress of dealing with people. It seems to me that computer conferences in some cases could do with longer breaks between sessions. I find that a lot of the benefit of a conference is in what happens outside sessions and the standard practice of publishing videos of presentations makes personal meetings a more important part of the conference.

Autscape has designated quiet spaces. I think that for computer conferences which have hack-labs (which seems to be most Free Software conferences nowadays – even if they aren’t labelled as such) it would be good to have some lab areas designated as quiet zones. I think that it is a really good thing to meet people you’ve only known by email and then play some LAN based games against them and that this should be encouraged as part of a conference, but having that sort of thing separated from people who want to do some quiet coding is a really good idea. Whether people want to do quiet coding, read email, or just escape from the stress of a conference a quiet hack-lab would be a good place for it.

An issue that’s related to quiet spaces is the ability to escape from social situations. One of my pet hates is corporate meetings on boats, when the boat is in motion there is no escape. Corporate meetings that are only accessible by coach are also bad. Fortunately most conferences aren’t like that.

The Autscape web site states that they prohibit people from wearing perfume or aftershave to help people who are sensitive to smell. My observation of Free Software conferences is that encouraging everyone to have a shower every morning would be a good idea as there are stronger smells from unwashed people than from perfume.

One thing that’s interesting about the Autscape web site is that they have different color schemes available and have tested it in multiple web browsers – including Safari and Konqueror (which apparently don’t work so well). It’s interesting to note that they test with such a variety of browsers including free software ones – most corporations don’t do that.

Sensory Processing Issues

The main SPD issues related to conferences seem to be noise and light related.

For social events one difficulty that most people on the Spectrum seem to face is in listening to one person in a noisy crowded room. As well as that sudden noises and loud background noises can be very stressful. While it’s sometimes impossible to avoid crowds (which can be another problem) it is often possible to select venues that have less noise problems. A venue with carpet on the floor and soft walls (anything other than brick or concrete) will be a lot quieter than one with hard surfaces that reflect noise. It seems that a quiet venue will benefit NTs as well, there seems to be a strong correlation between the price of food at restaurants and the amount of sound absorbing material on the floor and walls – people who can afford a good dining experience seem to want it quiet.

In terms of visual issues the relevant problems seem to be related to sudden transitions and lecture halls that are extremely dark. The only thing that can be done by conference organisers is to seek to have the lights in the lecture halls as bright as possible without preventing the viewing of the projector screen, this is usually done anyway.

For social events the whole binge drinking at crowded bars thing doesn’t work too well due to noise, poor lighting, crowds, and the smell of vomit. But there’s no shortage of reasons to discourage binge drinking at conferences.


Psychology Today has a good article about preferences for food and “picky eaters” [6]. Lots of people on the Autism Spectrum have similar issues. The thing to do when arranging a conference meal is to have things neat and without needless combinations. Think about making food look more like what you would expect to see in a Japanese restaurant and less like Paella. Also having some very plain food on offer is a good thing, I think that bread-rolls for dinner and ice-cream for desert makes a viable meal. But any dish with a word like “hash” or “mixed” in it’s name isn’t a good option. Finally some combinations are really bad, I always find rare steak and potatoes on the same plate to be rather disgusting – potato that’s blood-stained doesn’t appeal. The majority of conference meals satisfy these criteria.

Autscape provides options of eating outside the main dining hall for people who can’t tolerate the noise. For a Free Software conference it might be a better idea to provide seating outside the main area for people who are going to make noise. I don’t mind people who want to get really drunk at the conference dinner, but I would prefer them to be in a separate room. Also when assisting a drunk friend to leave the venue before they cause more problems it would be convenient if there was a good place to take them to. The one occasion when I had to strongly encourage a friend to leave a conference dinner to reduce his embarrassment the next day (and reduce the annoyance for everyone else) there was no good place to take him – so he just came back!


I don’t expect that anyone will make any significant changes to conference plans after reading this post. I have tried to focus on things that would benefit NTs as well, but there are practical issues that get in the way such as the cost and availability of venues that are large enough. But there are some smaller ideas that can be implemented with relative ease.

I hope that the people who are making claims about Autism and conference behavior will refer to this in future. If you think that there is a problem with the way people on the Spectrum act at conferences then the solution will more likely involve the suggestions I make here than anything else.

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