TPGA editor Kassiane Sibley went to Autreat last month, which is a "retreat-style conference run by autistic
people, for autistic people and our friends." We asked Kassiane a few questions so she could share a little bit more about Autreat, what makes it great, and what she learned.
What makes Autreat so special?
Autreat is Autistic space; a place with all of these people who are more like me than not like me. I've never, never been in a
place where everyone is "like me," where I don't need to apologize for
being socially "done" or for having a bad sensory day or for being literal
or whatever. It's this space where people who run the same OS (operating system) as I do are the default, and that's really special. Instead of having to work
hard at processing everything, it's a place where I could just be.
Autreat isn't like any other conference I've been to. A lot of conferences have what feels to
me like segregation stations, only they call them the "chill room" or something like that. I've had some good times in those sensory friendly suites, but I still think they shun those of us
who are actively looking Autistic, like it's shameful because we're stimming or are a bit overloaded (or a lot overloaded because we're trying to to stim because of how people
are reacting to the stimming you're trying not to do.)
But stimming at Autreat, everyone does it, everywhere; it's part of the
are some ways that autistics are accommodated that remove the need to
ask for accommodation (like good acoustics, clear agendas, better lighting.)
was only one room with presentations, so there was no choosing among
presentations. I hate that about most conferences-- I feel like I'm
missing out, or that I'm rude if I decide to check out something and enter late,
or if I need to just get up and leave. That one presentation room is set up so
that a pretty good portion of it is dark. (The front has the overhead
lights, but most of it was dark.) There were a few kinds of chairs, there
was floor, and there was pacing space. There were some issues with the
microphones, but at one point they just stopped everything until they
could fix it because the feedback was annoying people, and it was taken
seriously as something painful instead of treated as us being too
There was also a bit more time between
sessions than there is at most conferences, and not having five billion
sessions in a day was helpful for me (as someone who wants to miss
nothing but can't handle doing everything). Having a scheduled "this is when food
happens"was really helpful for me, at least, because I do
forget to eat if food doesn't magically present itself to me unless I'm
on my schedule. Most places I can say to someone "I forget
to eat, can someone remind me?" At Autreat I think I might have been
able to do that, but it was just built in so I didn't need to try to remember.
the rules about sensory needs in particular just made things easier-no
flash pictures, no perfume, et cetera. So much of what I find myself
panicking about asking people to do/not do is related to sensory needs
or seizure prevention needs that overlap with sensory a lot. I got to
put my guard down a bit.
What are some take-aways in how the conference was operated that
could be incorporated into more mainstream events and conferences to
make those events more accessible/emotionally less draining?
The interaction badges! [see Kassiane's post all about interaction badges here.]
those, a lot of the sensory stuff helps everyone. We don't need things
as bright as they are. Flash photography is utterly unnecessary. Perfume
doesn't smell good to anyone, especially not in a crowded place.
people might be able to do five breakout sessions in a day, but I'm not
sure I know any of those people. Habing fewer sessions at most conferences, or just doing one
keynote a day could help more people process what they hear and see. I'm
unconvinced anyone learns well in the chairs popular at most convention
centers, so providing a few options
would be awesome (though not likely).
if it's a conference about autism, it's time that everyone sucked it up
and accepted that we stim. If we're twirling in the lobby of the
convention center (something I actually have done in a lot of convention
centers), anyone bothered by it just needs to get over it. Being free
to be oneself while also conferencing is a part of access that's
overlooked especially at mainstream autism events. To get that to happen
may require a philosophical change among conference organizers; not feeling resented at a conference supposedly about
me would be a step in the right direction.
anti-harassment policy is also
top-notch. It's basically "don't be a creep" and "if someone said or
did what you're about to say or do to you, would you avoid them the rest
of the week? Then it's being a creep." It's so simple, but so many
conventions really fall down on nondiscrimination and non-harassment
policies. It's so much extra energy to worry about harassment (and I
know I'm not the only one who does). Then there's the worry if something
happens, is reporting it worth the hassle or will they say that it's just a
misunderstanding. Having a solid "don't be a creep" rule makes it all easier.
Someone made a comment that they "wished that all of life was like Autreat", does that mean easier to
navigate? or does that mean, it would be nice to live/work in an
environment that is filled with like-minded people in the truest sense?
Would it be possible to have live/work environments that functioned like
Autreat without it feeling like it was a segregated "other" group?
it be both? I wish life was easier to navigate in all senses. And I'd
love to live in or work in an environment that is set up for brains like
mine. It would be nice to have places to just let all the
probably possible to have an environment like Autreat. A house-share
could be set up to be Autistic friendly if everyone was on board, for
example. And I am almost certain there are work places in certain
industries that are extremely neurodivergent-friendly. Being able to
choose to be there, or not, is part of what makes it not-othering. My
roommate and I are setting up all sorts of inspired-by-Autreat
supports, mostly for me, but she's benefiting as well, and now it's
just the way our house is.
trying to Autreatify a sheltered workshop or a group home, would probably be extremely othering, especially if it was non-Autistics
trying to do this--it would be 'about us but without us.' Part of what
made the environment work was that it was created by autistics. It had a lot of trial and error in
Is Autreat an event that could be replicated in other places or for different age groups?
Autscape is similar to Autreat, but is in the UK, and there are
ongoing plans to make Autreat-like events in different parts of the
Did you find that one particular age group dominated the conference? Is there a difference a lot of difference in the thinking between the age groups?
I don't think so. There aren't as many divisions along age lines in the
Autistic community as there are in general society. There were a lot of
people my age, I think, but there were also a number of people
substantially older and quite a few who are appreciably
younger. There is a difference in the kind of activism, perhaps, but not so much in viewpoint. You don't really go to Autreat if you don't embrace being
What are some of the topics of discussion, and what is the balance of topics between advocacy/politics/change and survival/support?
this year included those about assistive technology, social media and
advocacy, service animals and pets, and a history of the Autistic
community. There were several others including information on spotting and combating quackery, and an "Ask an NT"
That balance of topics changes each year. This year most of the talks I attended were more on
the advocacy side, though the one that was about quackery straddled the
line. Previous years have had survival and support talks that I'd have
liked to attend. Next year, who knows? And to find out about non-official conversations, people are going to have to come themselves! There were many and they were lively.
Is there a topic you wish had been talked about that wasn't covered, or something you'd like to explore further?
actually think it'd be interesting to do a session on how to set up
one's home and/or workplace to be more Autistified. Or even even how to make a
discussion more accessible. I'm kind of fixated on that idea right now. And I have a few
ideas for future presentations, but everyone is just going to have to
wait and see.
Autreat is an annual conference held at the University
of Pittsburgh, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. For more information please visit the Autreat website.