Conference delegates with "invisible“ disabilities

People with autism, ADHD or intellectual giftedness experience events differently

Venues that are suitable for wheelchair users, sign language interpreters or accessible signage for blind people have more or less become standard when planning accessible events. However, how about visitors for whom communicating and visual, tactile or auditory stimuli are a strain? People with the "invisible disability" autism see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. Attending a big event can easily be overwhelming: Lots of people everywhere, a packed programme to choose from - it can all simply get a bit "too much". The same can apply to people with ADHD or intellectually gifted people.

What kind of environment would people who are in this group like to encounter when attending meetings and conferences? In conversation with GCB managing director Matthias Schultze, Dr. Christine Preißmann, who is herself on the autism spectrum, provides valuable insights.

What kind of environment would people who are in this group like to encounter when attending meetings and conferences? In conversation with GCB managing director Matthias Schultze, Dr. Christine Preißmann, who is herself on the autism spectrum, provides valuable insights.

Schultze: Christine, I'm delighted that you provide us with insights into how you perceive your environment. From the perspective of someone with autism, how do you experience meetings and conferences?

Preißmann: Big events are indeed difficult. Firstly, because of the acoustics but also because of all the people around, the lights, etc. The strain for the senses is high.

Schultze: Would you have specific requirements with respect to how conference rooms, the programme or signage are arranged and handled?

Preißmann: It would be helpful to have individual chairs that are not part of the rows of chairs and that are positioned separately with sufficient space between them, including appropriate pointers that these are seats for people with sensory sensitivities. Often, chairs are wedged into each other, which is particularly uncomfortable for me.

Room signage needs to be clearly visible. Signposts are helpful, however, staff that provides assistance is not. Receiving a map prior to the event, for example together with the registration confirmation, would be ideal. If it contains the odd photo to get an impression of what to expect, even better. This map should also indicate spaces where you can retreat to and maybe also inform about a contact that you can turn to in case of questions or any other issues.

Schultze: Any tips regarding communication?

Preißmann: At large events, people usually have name tags and I could imagine working with differently coloured stickers that can be changed based on how you feel: A red dot next to the name could indicate "please don't address me at the moment" while green stands for "available to talk at any time".

Schultze: Events are currently becoming increasing interactive, the audience is being integrated, new ways of transferring and exchanging knowledge are being used. Networking and providing opportunities to communicate with each other have become very important when planning events. How do you personally experience these trends?

Preißmann: These developments are indeed difficult for me. If I'm interested in something, I want to listen to it in my own time and not end up in a situation where I'm in a small group together with other people. Unfortunately, that is sometimes the case. I think it's good - also talking from the perspective of a speaker - if the audience has the opportunity to ask questions or even interrupt presentations with questions. Anything else, however, I personally don't want. Should something along those lines be planned, it should be indicated in the information provided about the individual slots on the agenda so that everyone then has the option to choose something else that is on offer.

Asperger syndrom

Asperger syndrom is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome have difficulties with social interaction and communication and therefore often appear to behave "strangely" or "awkwardly". On the other hand, the condition is also associated with special abilities and people with Asperger syndrome are often of above average intelligence. Many autistic people have a highly focused interest in unusual topics, often related to technology or natural science. Intellectual giftedness or savants are also common.

Dr. Christine Preißmann

Dr. Christine Preißmann is a general practitioner and psychotherapist and affected by the Asperger syndrome. For the last ten years of her career, she has focused on autism, giving talks, writing books and campaigning for self-help skills. As a board member of Autismus Deutschland e.V., she is also involved in the organisation of the association congress.