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Home About Us Blog Appreciating Neurodiversity Through Inclusive Spaces

Appreciating Neurodiversity Through Inclusive Spaces

Posted on 04/12/24 in Advocacy by Nathan Morgan, MSSA, LSW, Dir. Autistic Services

Appreciating Neurodiversity Through Inclusive SpacesApril is Autism Appreciation Month, but what does that mean on a practical level? How do we show a genuine appreciation for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals?

We started with Awareness, and our goal was to spread knowledge about autism and the strengths and struggles that accompany that neurotype. Then we moved into Acceptance and the idea that being different is okay. Many in our community are now transitioning to an idea of Appreciation – not merely tolerating differences, but truly celebrating our similarities and differences. Personally, I think that community connections are a crucial element to this process of celebrating neurodivergence.

In 2020, under the umbrella of the Ohio Family Network and as a member of the Milestones Autism Resources staff, I worked alongside many neurodivergent individuals to create the Milestones Self-Advocate Social Group. This group saw autistic individuals, from across the state, connect virtually and in-person over shared interests, hobbies, and lived experiences. In 2024, we at Milestones were proud to see this group transition to a community-operated model and take on a new name, Northeast Ohio Neurodiversity Social Group.

Creating inclusive spaces that celebrate neurodiversity has become a personal passion of mine. However, I recognize that no group can truly take on a “one size fits all” approach. We all have different preferences for how we communicate, be it frequent or infrequent, verbal or text, formal or casual, and so many other style variances. People also hold different interests. One person may want to join a sports team to make friends, but holds no interest in playing card games at a local hobby shop. In order to meet the diverse preferences of our community, we need to see many spaces grow to, not only accommodate for differences, but also truly create a space that appreciates and welcomes neurodivergent people.

In order to support others with creating such environments, I have reflected on my work over the past several years to guide others towards building additional community groups and created these guiding questions:

1) Which activities do YOU personally enjoy? Are these solo or group activities?

Creating an activity or event for others is an amicable goal. However, so often I have seen people create opportunities for others where they sit on the sidelines because they do not personally enjoy the activity. This creates at least a couple issues. First, if you’re not having fun alongside the participants, it begins to feel like a chore. Over time, it can become more challenging for group facilitators to maintain the motivation to continue running an activity.

Additionally, I believe it is important for people with disabilities to be fully integrated. “Volunteering” is a great thing, but in the context of creating a group it can feel like things are being “done to” rather than “done with” the community. Too often, disability services focus on doing things for individuals with disabilities rather than alongside. If we wish to truly follow the words of “Nothing about us without us,” then we must break down some of the barriers that exist – individuals with disabilities, family members, non-disabled peers, and professionals must learn strategies to cross the cultural divides that can exist within our communities to interact with one another. There is so much joy we can find in connecting with those who are different from ourselves. You can learn more about the Double Empathy Problem here.

2) Would you like your activity to be Virtual, In-Person, or Hybrid? Why? If In-Person or Hybrid, where will this event take place? Will you need help (i.e. co-facilitator)?

There are important considerations for each activity type. For example, a virtual event may be ideal for a community that prefers a combination of text-based and spoken communication. Individuals may elect to turn their camera on or off based on anxiety, sensory, and other needs. On the other hand, some activities may require in-person interactions. Others may also prefer the atmosphere of social engagements where one can have some snacks and socialize in a face-to-face manner. In my experience, hybrid can lend itself well to lecture activities (e.g. someone presents about interests or an educational topic for the benefit of the community) or small group work. However, for larger groups, hybrid can be difficult to fully support. People participating virtually may feel left out if technology is not properly tuned to the activity type, or those participating in-person may feel like they’re crowded around a computer screen. When done well, a Hybrid activity can be a great way of blending the two, virtual and in-person, but it requires a considerable amount of reflection and effort to create a truly interactive experience for all participants for some activity forms.

3) What materials or resources do you need to engage in this activity? Who will cover potential costs?

Snacks, materials, and other out-of-pocket expenses can add up. Early on, group facilitators may volunteer to cover these costs, but it can quickly become a barrier. One strategy may be to ask participants to bring baked goods and other snacks and have a potluck approach to events. In other instances, it’s okay to ask people to cover the cost of their own movie tickets. Of course, this can create barriers.

There are some clever strategies people can use to reduce costs. For example, if you’re going to visit a movie theater you may be able to receive discounts in the app by advance purchasing tickets and snacks. You could request all members pre-pay in advance so that the group facilitator can purchase the tickets at that discounted rate. However, be mindful that if a ticket or snack is pre-purchased, it might not be refundable if a group member is unable to arrive on the day of the event. A bit of research can help you as a group facilitator to pass on savings to members while avoiding crises.

4) What are some engagement or accessibility considerations for this activity?

The types of supports members of the group may need will vary over time. Just because something worked for many weeks, months, or years does not mean that will always be the case. As the group membership changes, be responsive and seek feedback regularly. Consider preemptively providing supports as well. Some individuals may be unaware of how some supports can benefit them, but note that some supports for one individual can potentially be barriers for others. I personally do best in lower light settings, but I know of individuals with vision difficulties who require bright lights.

Normalizing conversations about support needs can be helpful for everyone. You might ask members “How is the lighting in here?” to participants at the start of an activity and adjust accordingly. Consider putting the power in the hands of the participants, too. “You can brighten or dim the lights over here” while gesturing to the light switch can help to minimize situations where one individual becomes the sole person responsible for identifying and providing supports.

5) How will you measure “success”? (e.g. number of attendees, attendee satisfaction)

Identifying what success looks like to you is an important piece of creating a group activity. However, sometimes we can have success without recognizing it. Is your group activity that only has 2 people attending each week a failure? I’d argue that it is not. For those two people, it might be the most important activity of their week. It is an activity that brings them joy, allows them to feel connected to others, and involved in their community.

When identifying if a group activity is a success, consider not just the number of participants, but the satisfaction the activity brings to the participants. Evaluate how much work goes into the activity compared to the rewards felt by everyone involved. And also consider what the alternatives are. What would happen if the group activity disappeared? Perhaps the participants may have no other alternatives. If you determine that your group activity must discontinue because it does not meet the metrics you’ve identified to quantify and qualify success, my final suggestion is to please consider how this information will be shared with the participants and explore a transition plan to give everyone time to process and explore next steps.

To discuss these and other topics, join me on May 29th at the Quest Conference Center in Westerville, Ohio. I will be presenting and supporting discussion around the creation of inclusive social spaces for individuals with disabilities. For more information and to register, vis the Ohio Employment First website.

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