Neurodiverse accommodations at events let everyone share the fun 

A magical season is upon us, with great events available to choose from. Plays and stage presentations at this time […]

A magical season is upon us, with great events available to choose from. Plays and stage presentations at this time of year often have a theme centered on one or more of the December holidays. Many of us might fondly remember going to see a special play or musical in December, with our families or as part of a school field trip group. (Some of us might recall our own childhoods and relate more to a stage production of The Worst Christmas Pageant Ever.) 

Markets, light displays, Christmas parades, Advent happenings, the solstice, Santa houses, concerts, Kwanzaa fests, New Year’s Eve parties, winter nature walks . . . there is so much to choose from. Maybe you want to learn about Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Or are you curious about the British and Canadian tradition of Boxing Day? This is also a great time of year to share new traditions and cultures. 

For some of us, the December holidays are less about fun with family and friends, and more about seeking accommodations. One in 36 of us in Minnesota is on the autism spectrum. Many of us live with triggers that can be overwhelming, such as loud noises or flashing lights. 

We may get inundated at the holiday events our families and friends enjoy. We may really dislike changes in a routine, having a tree placed where a chair was or having a group come to visit. Or we may fixate on an aspect of the holidays. 

Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that affects many Minnesotans. That’s a significant number of people who are all too often left out of larger events. That in turn can exclude their family members. 

Could larger-scale events make changes? The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) is bringing back several of its accommodations-focused bills when the 2023 Minnesota Legislature convenes in January. The bills have been in the hopper for the past few years, on their own or as part of a larger access package. 

One of the proposals is for sensory-friendly events licensing. The bills is for larger public events, of 1,000 or more people. It would include requirements to provide sensory-friendly space or accommodations for any public event that includes 1,000 or more participants, as part of the event permitting process. 

Some venues have already stepped up to provide accommodations for people on the autism spectrum. This includes many theater companies with quiet spaces, and the Minnesota State Fair. Fraser worked with the state fair starting in 2021 to offer a sensory-friendly space that gives fairgoers a break from the busy atmosphere around them. That has been a welcomed respite spot and has allowed many people to enjoy the fair without feeling as if they must escape the fairgrounds entirely. 

AuSM has correctly noted that while Minnesota does a great job in providing physical and technological accommodations ranging from ramps to closed captioning statewide, addressing neurodivergent needs is another matter. The needs historically just haven’t been thought through, let alone implemented. 

We know many festivals and large-scale events around the state have struggled with costs in recent years. Increasing expenses as well as more competition for resources in general took a toll. Many of our favorite events are no more, or are returning in a scaled-back form since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But this kind of accommodation is not that difficult for larger events to provide, and we wish more event organizers would step up voluntarily. Providing accommodations would be a small expenditure in the light of many festival budgets. 

It would also be helpful to families, many of whom have children who are and are not neurodivergent. Having to leave an event because one family member is stressed can be a big disappointment for others who want to stay and enjoy the fun. Having accommodations means everyone can get a break of sorts. 

If the Minnesota State Fair can provide sensory accommodations with a huge crowd, smaller events could bring in partners and do the same thing. That’s especially true for events that obtain some type of public subsidy, such as municipal help with police costs or barricades. 

The events bill is in the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) second tier of priorities for the 2023 session. While MNCCD considers all of its work to have equal importance, tiers help allocate resources and outline responsibilities. Tier 2 items have their legislative lead groups, but also can rely on support from MNCCD in the form of help from volunteers and lobbyists. 

We hope this bill and other accommodations-focused legislation get the right amount of attention this session. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the equitable thing to do. 

Join Us! 2023 Virtual Legislative Forum: December 16th, 2022 - MN Council on Disability