Smart Chat: Megan Henshall on Building a Neuro-inclusive Future

A portrait of Megan Henshall. She discusses how meetings can accommodate neurodiversity.

How do you define neurodiversity?

One in 44 people has some form of neurodiversity. There is a growing movement with people who operate over a whole range of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, even traumatic brain injury functions who see accommodating all processing abilities as a diversity and inclusion issue rather than a disability and accessibility issue. They want the issue treated the same way racial or gender equity is managed. That makes sense because we can’t control the way our brains work any more than we can control the color of our skin. We should be holding space for all cognitive types.

What resources are available for planners to accommodate neurodiversity?

I am on this journey with my son who is four and was diagnosed with autism last year. I have been learning how to make space and advocate for him.

When I went to research resources for planners, I didn’t find much. I am committed to supporting neurodistinct people at my company to tell their own story rather than trying to tell the story as a neurotypical person. It has been such a learning journey for me.

Some work has been done at gaming conferences and a few sports arena, but there is a lot of room to improve.

Read MoreTips on Catering to All Types of Event Attendees

What are small things meeting professionals can do to make everyone feel more comfortable?

We have a potent opportunity as event professionals. We bring people together and if we can create a playbook for other disciplines to use, that can bring about huge change.

It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It can be as simple as stating in your registration that this is an event that is safe and considerate of all neuro types. Ask attendees to reach out and let you know how you can support them. Asking is free.

It is about scaffolding. Make it OK for people to walk away, to unplug. Give longer breaks so people can renew and re-charge. So much of what neurodistinct people need is what everyone needs right now. Design for the extremes benefits the means.

Once you understand how many different ways we are showing up cognitively, emotionally and from a sensory perspective, you allow yourself to more fully be yourself because you are more tolerant and patient with other people.

“So much of what neurodistinct people need is what everyone needs right now. Design for the extremes benefits the means.”

This benefits the event organizer, too, because every person brings fresh points of view to a conference and being kind benefits everyone. This is a human issue, not a logistics issue. It is about making space for all your attendees.

What is your vision for what a truly inclusive event looks like and how long will it take to get there?

Examples we have brainstormed include: No one will approach you unless you walk up to a booth. Everyone would be given clear instructions so you don’t have to stand awkwardly and wonder who to ask. If you don’t see value in a conversation, it is OK to use a safe word and exit.

That would also be a huge relief for those of us who are just introverted. It would make educational and entertainment spaces joyful instead of exhausting.

It takes a concerted effort by a lot of people to make that happen. People are afraid to get it wrong, so it is easier to do nothing. But you can’t try wrong. Doing nothing is the worst possible outcome.

When we invite people to engage in our experiences, we are committing to them that we will feed them, keep them safe, create a sense of belonging and community. We are in breach of our contract if we don’t follow through with that commitment.

I am manifesting that this be a reality by the time my son is old enough to go to corporate events.

Smart Tips for Being Neuro-inclusive

  • Provide sound-filtering headphones
  • Build in a quiet space
  • Sprinkle fidget toys on the table
  • Train staff so that if someone gets triggered, they can get support
  • No strobe lighting or sudden sounds

For initial guidelines from a Google focus group, scan here:

This article appears in the July 2022 issue.

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