Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When Chairs Are the Enemy

TPGA is observing Autism Acceptance Month by featuring accounts from autistic people about the differences accommodations (or lack thereof) make in their lives. Today's example is from Aiyana Bailin, about how small accommodations changes, in this case choices regarding chairs, can have "huge results."

Aiyana Bailin
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Once, at a convention of (mostly) autistic people, I observed a peculiar phenomenon. Chairs were arranged in a large circle, and perhaps 100 attendees gathered and sat. A handful of people, myself included, took their spot in the circle, but sat on the floor in front of their chair, rather than on the chair itself. This floor-sitting evoked no signs of disapproval; after all, most autistic people know that comfort doesn't come in one-size-fits-all. But I'm used to people being surprised, if not concerned, when I choose the floor over a chair.

Over the next hour, more and more people migrated out of their seats until the percentages had reversed, with some 80-90% of us on the floor and only a half dozen still in chairs. It struck me as curious. Were people slowly tiring of their chairs? Had many people wanted to sit on the floor to begin with, but were too timid to go against a social norm until enough others had done so? Did some try it just out of curiosity? Or, as the trend shifted, did some move to the floor for the sake of social conformity, the same concern that usually keeps most of us in our seats?

Given the opportunity, I usually choose the floor, or at least a couch or ottoman, over a chair. If required to use a chair, I often sit “incorrectly”: sideways, or backwards, or kneeling. Sometimes, I tolerate chairs well. At other times, sitting “properly” in a chair is truly stressful, physically painful, and/or a major distraction from whatever I'm supposed to be attending to. It depends on the chair, and my overall levels of pain and anxiety, whether or not I'm cold, and so on. But generally speaking, chairs and I don't get along.

Unless you struggle with them, you probably don't realize just how much of our lives we spend in chairs. Children sit in chairs at school. Adults sit in chairs at work. We sit (usually in chairs of some kind) for movies, concerts, travel, and, of course, meals. That's a lot of time to spend in discomfort.

Access needs regarding chairs are diverse: there is no perfect chair. (There are, however, almost universally hated chairs, usually found in airplanes and classrooms). People with back problems may need straight-backed chairs, while others may require softness. Chairs vary along so many dimensions: height, angle of the seat and back, texture, material, odor, width, contouring, presence or absence of armrests, stability. Sometimes a seat can meet multiple needs, like being high enough for a tall person, yet with rungs where shorter people can rest their feet.

I suspect that seating discomfort is common in autism (though by no means limited to autistic people). Many of us, particularly as children, benefit greatly from chairs designed to be non-stationary: rocking chairs, “fidget” chairs, and so forth. These can improve focus, compensate for proprioceptive hypo-sensitivity, and alleviate restlessness. In short, many “attention issues” can be fixed simply by providing a little motion for the person sitting. Small change, huge results. That's what accommodations do at their best. They make (often minor) adjustments that have profound impacts.

Additionally, sensory factors that might cause minor discomfort for a neurotypical person (e.g., unpleasant texture) can be overwhelming for an autistic person. Health conditions that are relatively common in the autistic population -- such as hyper-mobility and chronic pain -- impact the range of positions in which a person can sit comfortably. The appropriate seating for autistic people seems, like so many other things, just a little out-of-sync with the neurotypical standard.

I understand that not every business, classroom, and so forth can afford ergonomic seating. And that a hodge-podge of different chairs around the conference table would draw some raised eyebrows. But small changes can be made, and can make a real difference.

An assortment of chairs, or even a choice between two types, is a big help. If you can't afford many new chairs, have just one or two of a different style from the rest. Keep a few extra-large chairs for use by larger people. Leave ample space between rows of seats (I can't tell you how many times I have nearly fallen or stepped on someone trying to squeeze my way past people in an auditorium). Small options like cushions and the ability to reposition the chair can allow us make our own adjustments. Easiest of all, just let us sit on the floor (I should note that not everyone is able sit on the floor, either -- so don't do away with chairs altogether!).

Awareness itself is an accommodation. Most of us have been taught that sitting on the floor is not allowed, so please inform us when it is. If you are running a classroom or meeting, invite people to sit or stand, lean against the wall or even quietly pace at the back of the room, as they prefer. Identify an area at the front of the room as floor-sitting space. Offer regular stretch breaks. Say “make yourself comfortable,” and mean it.

Being in distress or pain can significantly impact one's ability to concentrate, work, eat well, make good decisions, pass an exam, listen to a presentation, or engage in casual socialization at the lunch table. A choice of seating can help. Your understanding and acceptance help even more.