I recently had the opportunity to attend an autism conference.
To say I was anxious was an understatement – I was highly anxious. The conference was touted as being very inclusive of autistics, indeed a quarter of the attendees were likely autistic if not more.
But my anxiety was twofold: Firstly, I felt like I was entering ‘enemy’ territory. Autism politics can be found in many places in Facebook and sometimes they spill over to real life. In my case I have avoided certain conferences due to this. But another autistic, reached out and I accepted. Quite why I don’t know, curiosity? A chance to rebuild? New beginnings? Whatever the reason I committed myself to it and so to prevent myself backing out I immediately booked my flights, which brings me to the second reason for my anxiety.
The conference was in an area I am not familiar with, and I was likely to be without some key support systems such as family and key supporters. I would be stranded if anything went wrong. And I had no idea of what to expect.
As a result I took several steps to avoid meltdowns or shutdowns.
* Arranged to fly up the day before. This gave a chance to get my bearings, to test the food, to acclimatise to the hotel room, and ensured I wouldn’t be arriving on the day tired. By arriving the day before I was able to retreat to my room when I needed to during the day – whereas those who arrived on the day had a 2pm check in time.
* I took some foods from home. A sense of familiar in case I didn’t like the food there.
* I took my technology. Access to my laptop as well as my phone meant I had a means of calming myself when I needed to.
* I used the quiet room the conference organisers had thoughtfully provided. It was one of the best rooms for this purpose I had seen. A little darker than I prefer but I was mindful of others needs as well. It came in handy for some of the meal times when I needed things to be less overwhelming.
* I took some things I knew I would need to help me sleep namely a heavy dressing gown and a particular pair of night socks. Despite these though I didn’t sleep particularly well (I ended up with an ear ache on day 2 of my stay). I still felt secure though, not anxious at sleeping in a different place.
* I arranged to connect with some people I had only ever met on Facebook. I felt I knew them well enough from online interactions that had anything happened they would have been able to help me. These people were just as lovely in real life!
* I planned my travel allowing for many contingencies (flight could have been cancelled or diverted, sussing out airport transfers to and from the conference, planning my time). This was done almost daily for two weeks before the conference. It became my hyperfocus. Can’t recommend this enough!
This brings me to the fact that for many autistics we have to know our triggers and try to mitigate them and this takes a lot of planning and being real about our limitations. It means finding ways of dealing with our executive functioning issues, it may mean getting a friend to help if necessary.
I spent some of my time at conference learning, sometimes considering a different point of view (didn’t agree with all that was said!), supporting other autistics, eating, sleeping, fussing two dogs(!) but most of all networking. I am grateful to a small group of ladies who, though not autistic, reached out and showed genuine acceptance and inclusion. They made me feel safe. Safe enough to reach out to people I didn’t know or had never even met before (not even online!) I am also grateful to the autistics who included me, despite the politics. In fact no one said anything negative about me to my face, and believe me autistics would!
I appreciated the efforts of the organisers to try and be inclusive. Did they always succeed? No, but they genuinely tried. They made mistakes, actually some of those mistakes were not theirs but from the hotel where the conference was being held. I didn’t judge them for those because I make so many myself. Maybe I was just too grateful to be there, to have had the opportunity to be included. I was able to detach myself from being too emotionally connected around language or attitudes.
It took me about a week to recover on the surface from the conference.
I am not sure I learned anything new but being autistic maybe that wasn’t surprising. I did come away a little more inspired and that’s always a good thing.
I came away feeling good about the connections I made, a strengthening of some relationships and the development of some new ones.
I’m still tired from the conference.
So I have been kind to myself. I have to allow myself the recovery time as part of my self care.
I am very tired – I can hold it together for a long time.
Would I go again? Most definitely.