Autism: “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.” Oxford English Dictionary
Loud and lively, playing with words and messing with metaphor, spontaneous, hilarious … children’s book festivals and school visits by authors, illustrators and other creative artists can be a thrilling break from the routine of lessons and lunchbreaks. But for the estimated 1 in 65 students in Ireland on the autistic spectrum, such events can trigger massive anxiety and fear. A workshop organised by Children’s Books Ireland and Poetry Ireland, Events for All, explored some of the challenges faced by children and adults with autism. Danny, a teenager on the spectrum, described his anxiety at the prospect of author visits to his school; he would sometimes opt out or stay at home because of the change in routine and unpredictability of the event. Adam Harris, the founder of AsIAm, compared autism to visiting a foreign country with nothing but a phrase book to negotiate the language and culture.
So how can organisers and facilitators of book festivals, school visits and other creative events help reduce stress and calm the environment for participants on the spectrum? There are many small changes that can make a huge difference. A few simple starters:
Give one piece of information at a time
Write clear instructions e.g. on a poster which can be read over
Speak and write clear, literal English rather than using metaphor and imagery
Provide calm, quiet, ordered spaces (e.g. a tent at an event for limited numbers) where anyone who feels overwhelmed can spend time in peace.