Designing Neuro-Inclusive Events: Tips for Societies and Publishers
Neurodiversity refers to the concept that each person experiences the world differently and that variations in brain development are normal. These differences in perception, sensitivity, and behavior result in strengths and challenges. The Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute (DCEG) states that “driven by both genetic and environmental factors, an estimated 15-20 percent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence.” These conditions include autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as other characteristics. According to the DCEG, people with ASD and ADHD are overrepresented in STEM fields.
To take advantage of the unique strengths of neurodivergent individuals, it is important for conference planners to offer accommodations that embrace all the diversities of their organizations’ members. Inclusion creates belonging, which allows everyone to feel they have a voice. The inclusion of different perspectives and experiences strengthens creativity and limits groupthink, which enhances the event, increases learning for everyone, and leads to new ideas and opportunities. In addition, embracing diversity empowers the affected individuals, builds communities, and creates ambassadors for the organization.
With all of these advantages, why wouldn’t conference organizers want to accommodate everyone? Making an event neuro-inclusive doesn’t have to be complicated.
Practical tips on making an event/conference neuro-inclusive
Here are a few simple ways conference organizers can make their events more neuro-inclusive.
- Create a safe space: This is the most essential accommodation for planners who want a neuro-inclusive event. Safe spaces are respite areas that are quiet and spacious with dim lighting and no strong smells. For example, the International Communication Association (ICA) designates a quiet room during conferences “for use by attendees requiring a respite from the overstimulation of meeting activities. Please note that this room is not to be used for meetings, conversation, typing correspondence, or phone calls.” Microsoft also makes a quiet space available as part of their events.
- Offer hybrid events: Hybrid events, such as those that provide virtual options, allow individuals to decide how to attend based on their own specific needs and comfort levels. The American Chemical Society (ACS) is offering hybrid and virtual registrations for its spring 2023 conference.
- Create predictability and communicate directly: Neurodivergent individuals frequently prefer predictability over uncertainty. Therefore, according to the Skift Meeting’s article “How to Accommodate Event Attendees With Neurological Needs,” agendas should be clear and include direct language. In addition, signage and venue plans should be highly visible.
- Provide an environment that avoids sensory overstimulation: Loud noise, bright lights and colors, and strong odors can be challenging to neurodiverse individuals. Being aware of this and controlling for it can go a long way in improving the satisfaction of conference attendees. For example, ICA “requests that all participants refrain from wearing strong perfume, cologne, or other fragrances for the benefit of attendees with multiple chemical sensitivities.” Issuing noise-canceling headphones can also help create a comfortable environment for neurodivergent conference attendees.
- Ensure trained staff is available: It is always helpful to have people at the event who understand the needs of neurodivergent individuals. The Neu Project, a global community that began at Google, has published an Event Professional’s Guide to Neuroinclusion that provides a wealth of information about neurodiversity and tips for creating neuro-inclusive events. Becoming familiar with this guide can prepare staff to help all attendees enjoy a productive conference.
With the large number of neurodiverse individuals in the world and especially in scientific research fields, creating inclusive conference environments can only increase the value of those events for everyone. Taking a few simple steps can result in a positive conference experience for participants, sponsors, and organizers.