We’ve all been there: you’re at an event, and speaker after speaker drones their way through a dull, text-packed PowerPoint presentation, with little time to breathe between each. You leave the event feeling frazzled, foggy-brained, and worn out.
For neurodiverse individuals (such as those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or learning disabilities), other events can feel just as draining. And yet, many event marketers fail to take neurodiversity into account when planning their events — meaning they’re potentially underserving up to a fifth of their audience.
Below, we’ll explore the importance of planning events that accommodate neurodiversity and diverse learning styles, and share a few tactical ways you can do so before, during, and after your event.
But first: what is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to the idea that there are a wide range of natural differences in the way that individuals’ brains function, which impacts the way people think, learn, and behave. Some of the neurological differences that impact the way people consume information and interact with the world can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s, and learning disabilities.
Neurodiverse individuals can have varying comfort levels with different types of sensory input, such as lights, sounds, smells, and textures. They may prefer structure and feel overwhelmed by a lack of routine, or prefer certain types of social interaction. Others may have processing differences, where they find it more challenging to absorb information through certain mediums (such as text, audio, or video).
“It’s important to recognize that not all neurodiverse people are alike—just like any other group, there are different types of neurodiversity,” says Will Yang, Head of Growth & Customer Success at Instrumentl. “Some people may have trouble seeing or hearing; others may have trouble communicating verbally or nonverbally; others may have trouble staying focused for long periods of time.”
It can be helpful to consider the fact that everyone thinks and engages with the world in different ways. Even if a person is more neurotypical — or has a brain that functions in a similar way to the majority’s — they may be more introverted, more extroverted, prefer consuming information in certain ways, or have trouble concentrating for longer periods of time.
Why do inclusive event experiences matter?
Considering that 15 to 20% of the general population is neurodiverse, it’s likely that you’ve had neurodiverse attendees at every event you’ve ever hosted. Ensuring that your events accommodate neurodiversity helps ensure that your events are inclusive and welcoming to all participants, and that more attendees are able to fully engage with your event’s content.
As a result, your event will likely enjoy a boost in attendance, engagement, and retention.
“Inclusive design benefits everyone, not just neurodiverse individuals,” Bruce Rose, head of audience at Live Group, told AMI Magazine. “I think about Rory Sutherland’s point on all of us being differently abled at some point in our lives — a door built for someone with arm impairments is just as useful for somebody holding two cups of tea.”
In other words: the steps you take to make your event more inclusive to neurodiverse individuals will usually benefit other participants, as well. For instance:
- Offering participants multiple ways to network (or not) can benefit those who are less comfortable with social interaction, as well as those who are more introverted
- Making post-event content available in multiple formats (such as audio only, video, and text) can benefit those who have processing differences, as well as participants who only have time to listen to a session while commuting to work
- Making your in-person event accessible virtually can benefit those who are overwhelmed by travel, as well as participants who can’t travel for an event due to family commitments
Making your event more inclusive will also likely increase the diversity of attendees at your event, which can spark richer discussions, a stronger sense of community, and higher levels of engagement.
“In my experience, I’ve seen that when you have a diverse group of participants at an event, there’s a greater chance that they’ll engage with each other in meaningful ways…They’ll take away something different from the event than if they had been surrounded by people who think exactly like them. When people come together from different backgrounds and perspectives and make connections with one another, those connections can lead to some pretty amazing things.”
Will Yang, Head of Growth & Customer Success at Instrumentl
How to personalize your event for neurodiverse attendees pre-, during, and post-event
As you may have guessed, due to the many shapes neurodiversity can take, it’s impossible to take a “one size fits all” approach to planning an event that honors neurodiversity and different learning styles. However, there are a few actions you can take to help ensure that neurodiverse attendees feel comfortable at your event.
Before the event begins
Ask participants what they need
“Aiming to be accessible by default is a great goal to strive for when planning events,” says Emily Owen, operations manager at Dig Inclusion and co-founder of neurodiversity blog The Wyrd Sisters. “This means any neurodiverse or disabled individuals will automatically be accommodated for, without having to request it.”
However, don’t be shy about (additionally) asking participants how you can accommodate them.
Neurodiversity can take many different forms, and it can be helpful to ask attendees if they have any specific accommodation needs. Build this into your event registration form, so that participants don’t need to hunt down contact information or go out of their way to request accommodation.
Let participants know what to expect
For many individuals, it can be helpful to know exactly what to expect at an event. Make sure your event’s landing page carefully details your event’s agenda, session formats, and any on-site (or virtual) resources for participants. That way, attendees can prepare in advance for the event and create a routine for themselves during the event.
Make sure you also include a section on accessibility on your event page, where attendees can understand the resources available to them. Looking for an example? Microsoft does a great job of this with their flagship events’ accessibility considerations and accommodations page.
Make this information freely available, and don’t forget to send out as much information as possible about your event before it kicks off.
Consider making your event hybrid
If you’re running an in-person event, consider streaming your sessions virtually, too.
“The more options you can offer in terms of attendance, the better you’re going to serve the (very diverse) neurodivergent crowd,” says Ben Michaels, VP of Operations at Michael & Associates. “The ability to attend remotely, to gain access despite physical disabilities, and to take in the event in a way that is less intense from a sensory perspective are all key to accommodating this demographic.”
During the event
Offer flexible ways to engage
For some individuals, nothing sounds more daunting than joining a 150-person networking hour — or having to ask a speaker a question in front of a large virtual audience. Instead, offer participants flexible ways to engage with the content, speakers, and one another, such as:
- Hosting smaller breakout rooms
- Using color-coded wristbands at in-person conferences to indicate participants’ openness to networking
- Letting attendees take part in games or activities rather than simply mingling in a room
- Allowing participants to submit questions through a chat box or form
“If the event is virtual, do not force people to have their cameras on, or call out individuals to participate, as they may not be in a position to do so,” suggests Owen.
Both in-person and virtually, ensure that your speakers know not to call out attendees who may choose not to participate in traditional ways. While well-meaning, this can make participants feel isolated and misunderstood.
Whether you’re running an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event, consider the many ways you can make your event more accessible:
- Create quiet areas where attendees can take a break from any sensory stimulation
- Add live closed captioning to any livestreams
- Make software available to dyslexic attendees that lets them make visual text auditory
- Use softer lighting and avoid any strobe lighting or sudden sounds
- Offer participants sound-filtering earplugs
Make your event easy to navigate
Large events — both online and in-person — can be difficult to maneuver even at the best of times. For those who prefer predictability and routine, this challenge can be even more stressful. You can ease this stress by making your event easier to navigate.
“During the event, make sure all locations are signposted well,” suggests Owen. “Then, throughout the event, ensure you have processes in place that allow attendees to ask any questions they may have.”
At in-person events, use clear signage and have staff available to direct attendees and answer their questions. For virtual events, give clear instructions ahead of time on how to navigate your event platform, and have an always-on virtual room available where participants can go for any questions or assistance.
After the event ends
Make content available in multiple formats
Even for the most focused of individuals, most events tend to pass in an all-too-quick blur. Make sure attendees are able to revisit event content by making it available in a variety of formats, including:
- Video recordings
- Audio-only recordings
You can make post-event content even more digestible by sending attendees bite-sized, skimmable recaps and takeaways. This can often be easier for participants to process than re-watching (or listening to) a full session again.
Follow up with neurodivergent participants
Finally, close the loop on your accessibility efforts by asking participants how you did. Reach out to attendees who identified as neurodivergent and request feedback — ideally shared in a quick phone call or email.
The more detail you can get, the better. This will help you understand where your event excelled, where it may have fallen short, and how you can improve your efforts for your next event.
Make sure your next event includes (and celebrates!) neurodiversity and diverse learning styles
Vimeo’s virtual event platform makes it easier than ever to plan and host an inclusive event. Make your in-person event hybrid, host accessible virtual events, and create inclusive registration forms using our flexible and personalizable virtual events platform.