Autism Awareness Month: ASD Goes on the Convention Circuit
April is National Autism Awareness Month. It’s a cause that is very important to me and my wife as we are godparents to a young person on the spectrum. With convention season kicking into full gear, we thought this would be the perfect time to offer some tips for making sure that everyone can have great experience.
Before we begin, we want to thank Patrick Hessman, Zach Smith and a young man named Aaron. It was at a recent panel at NCComicon that we sat in and learned this valuable information.
The biggest barrier for people with autism when it comes to Cons are that the environment can be overwhelming. There’s tons of strangers, unfamiliar settings, and essentially chaos. But there’s also structure. Most Cons offer brochures or booklets that announce when panels and other events will be held. They also have maps that lay out the floor plan for the majority of the convention. A lot of this information can be found days or weeks in advance and it can help those with special needs to better plan their excursions.
For any Con attender with ASD, it is important to identify your strengths and weaknesses. ‘I know I can do handle crowds’ ‘There’s no way I can handle loud music.’ All parties involved should put their analytical mind to use. Google is a valuable resource that can link you to websites that offer tips for learning the skills you need to educate yourself!
Whether you like it or not, you have to deal with people at a convention. From the ticket taker at the front door to the vendor selling your favorite merch, at some point, every attendee will have to interact with someone. It’s important to understand your quirks. Some can be explained and some can’t. Develop a level of comfort within yourself when it comes to this. It will help the times of confusion and awkward feelings go by a little easier.
It’s also okay to say NO!
Cons are a great chance for fans to escape the challenges of everyday life. Those with ASD are not broken and they do not need to be fixed. But the chance to emulate one of your favorite superheroes is an opportunity too exciting to miss. But as we are learning through the cosplay community- COSPLAY IS NOT CONSENT!
If a person with ASD (or anyone, really) doesn’t like being photographed or being the focus of attention is difficult, they have a right to say no. Some with ASD might like having their picture taken in their costumes, but they do not like be touched. It’s okay to tell someone making a photo request that you would prefer to be photographed without others in the picture.
Those requesting photos may not understand a person’s boundaries. They can get kinda pushy and accused the cosplayer of not being fun or nice. This is where understanding your quirks come in handy as at this point you may choose to explain why you do not want to be touched or photographed. It’s important to let those with ASD understand that it’s also okay to just walk away or seek the help of security when other attendees refuse to respect those boundaries.
There may be times those with ASD need to have a chance to process or decompress. If you need help, approach the information desk or a volunteer. Explain that you or a member of your party need a quiet place to get away for a few minutes. An empty panel room not in use is a good fortress of solitude for this purpose. Those with ASD should plan ahead and bring familiar items with them to help distract themselves during stressful times. If you are accompanying someone on the spectrum, if may be helpful to have something to focus on; favorite book or video game or a chance to write down their feelings can help process faster and get back into the mix of things quicker and more safely. However, be aware what may be helpful if just to offer some time alone.
Another great idea is to email the coordinator and explain that a quiet room for those with not just autism but panic disorder or depression might be a vital amenity to start offering at the Con.
Dressing Up For Fun and Games
Likes and dislikes of those with ASD are as unique and varied as those of everyone else. However, there are some characters who seem to stand out.
We mentioned the fortress of solitude a little while ago. Superman is a favorite amongst those with ASD; not just to admire but to cosplay as since he seems nearly indestructible. Some on the spectrum like to tinker mechanically, so Spider-Man and Iron Man are fan favorites in the autistic community. A chance to hide yourself away is an alluring prospect for those who are autistic. Snake Eyes from GI Joe who wears a full face mask is a character who fits this category.
But with the issue of gun safety, some conventions may not allow fake weapons or require color adjustments. These kind of changes may be upsetting to those with ASD. So it’s very important to review a Con’s rules of cosplay ahead of time and carefully explain why that sweet looking AK-47 just can’t come with you to the event.
So, which characters should a person with ASD be a fan of? That’s up to them. Let them like who they like. But if you are hoping to introduce a helpful character to your friend or loved one on the spectrum, here’s a few suggestions of characters that are growing in popularity in the autistic community:
Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy. He doesn’t understand humor or slang very well.
Vinyl Scratch from My Little Pony. As one of the few unicorns in the show, this character doesn’t care what others think of her differences.
Mr. Freeze from Batman. He is distanced from humanity because of his refrigerated shell, and he has a single-minded desire and focus to save his wife Nora.
Newt Scamander from the Harry Potter universe. As a half-blood, he’s considered an outcast in the wizarding community. But he’s an expert on magical creatures and vital to saving the day when one goes wild.
There’s just no way to cover how to attend a Con if you or someone you care about with ASD in a single article. We’d have to fill an entire book just to fully scratch the surface. But hopefully. With this primer, we’ve provided you with some helpful tips and tools to take a first step into the wonderful world of comics, gaming, cosplay and more. See you at the Cons!
About The Co-Author:
Jan Dillard is an award winning LCSW. An alum from Duke University, Jan is a fan of Peter Pan, Lord of the Rings, and feels that Matt Smith is the only Doctor suitable for piloting the TARDIS.