Awaydays have become commonplace in most organisations. They are a day-long event for employees and managers to spend time away from their usual workplace or environment. They typically include team building exercises, training, or brainstorming activities. They are mainly used in the belief that a change of scenery would enhance creativity and relaxation.
In practice, many awaydays have gradually lost this original sense of purpose. They often take place just in a different building or room on site, so they are not really ‘away’ at all. They can be full of unstructured or very loosely structured exercises using lots of post-it notes. They are frequently characterised by a sense of futility. This erosion of what seemed like a clear concept reflects their true function: to enable neurotypicals to feel more comfortable with one another. Sometimes the group will bond together in disapproving of the awayday itself. Funnily enough, that outcome can be productive.
From an autistic perspective, this amounts to a nightmare. Awaydays cause more anxiety and distress than almost any other activity. Having established a working pattern and set of routines at work, the autistic employee is suddenly required to stop all that in order to undertake a series of activities that rely on social interactions whose purpose is often unclear and in an unfamiliar environment that may or may not be well suited.
Since most organisations contain autistic people, it is very important to plan awaydays effectively and inclusively. Here are a few thoughts. N.B. These are just my thoughts - others may disagree or want to add things!
First and foremost, an awayday needs to have a clear purpose, a set of aims and objectives. That should include a statement of why it is necessary to go away, rather than staying in familiar surroundings. If you cannot come up with a convincing reason for going away, then please don’t do it!
I would strongly recommend having autistic people involved in the planning. It seems obvious, but they will be best placed to advise on what will work and what will not.
You should provide information and guidance well beforehand, including an accessibility map and, preferably, a video, or at least photos, of the venue and the approaches to it. There should be a quiet room available and you should have adjustable non-fluorescent lighting and use microphones for speaking.
You should space out noisy activities or, preferably, segregate them into separate areas. Avoid using balloons or other objects which may cause distress. Make great use of visuals, signs and timetables. Provide a clear running order, highlighting anything particularly bright, noisy or unexpected.
Every activity should be clearly structured, with a defined purpose and statements in advance about what is expected. Give people the option to drop out if need be. Never make “one size fits all” assumptions. Make sure that you know in advance if there are to be any fire drills or alarms. Those can really disrupt everything, for the whole day.
If you want to encourage unstructured social interaction (of course, there is no reason why the entire day should be made just for the benefit of autistics) then signal that clearly and give people who do not want to participate some acceptable way of ducking out. At some autistic events, people wear coloured communication badges to indicate whether or not they are open for conversation.
Bear in mind that autistic people can take longer to process information and may also struggle to explain how they are feeling, so build in plenty of space and time to get the best results. It’s ok to get personal – autistic people love talking about themselves! – but only in a way that gives the sense that we are contributing to a worthwhile exercise. In other words, there has to be an obvious reason. Avoid indirect and metaphorical speech and, obviously, expect social communication that lacks real and clear meaning to be greeted with incomprehension or anxiety.
To summarise: if the autistic person understands the reason for everything, can follow a clear structure and schedule that is stuck to rigorously, and is encouraged to share their insights, then you can get great results. On the last point, be ready: autistic people can talk for an hour or more without stopping on certain topics. It’s a good idea to specify before asking someone a question whether you want a short answer, a long answer, or a very long answer!
Finally, check in on spoons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_theory Most autistic people have a sense of how they are doing during the course of a day. Ideally, you want to end an awayday with enough spoons to be able to get home safely. If spoons are getting dangerously depleted, then please allow the person to duck out, to avoid having a meltdown or shutdown later.