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Monday, 15 July, 2019

‘It’s upsetting’: the autistic music fans being shut out of gigs – The Guardian

Punk band Nervous Rex, with Elliot Knight, right – two out of the three members are autistic. Photograph: Nervous Rex

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Loud sounds, bright lights, sweaty crowds – a gig can be an overwhelming experience for someone with autism, who may be oversensitive to sensory stimuli. As a result, many autistic music fans stay away, and another corner of society becomes closed off to them – the National Autistic Society (NAS) has found that 79% of people with autism are socially isolated.

Around 700,000 people in the UK have autism – more than 1% of the population. Increasing awareness of their access needs has led to adapted versions of popular events, such as “autism-friendly” cinema screenings, with dimmer lighting and soundtracks played at a lower volume, but these are primarily geared towards families with young autistic children. With the majority of concertgoers being teens and adults, there has been less interest in the creation of autism-friendly live music performances.

Those lucky enough to receive support during childhood, from a special educational needs coordinator or mental health services, often see this help withdrawn as they get older, resulting in that social isolation. Music can be a lifeline. For Elliot Knight, a Bristol-based punk musician and promoter who is autistic, and struggles to function in a typical workplace, music is a way of “filling [their] days” and a “special interest” (the term used to describe highly focused interests held by many autistic individuals). Elliot recently started a band called Nervous Rex, of which two of the three members are autistic, “and we’ve been playing a lot of shows and that’s really fun and cool”.

Although special interests can pose challenges – for instance when they distract autistic people from their responsibilities – they are also described by many autistic people an important source of wellbeing, acting as a buffer to anxiety and depression.

Knight, a non-binary person who uses gender-neutral pronouns, says their ability to engage with a special interest can be hindered when the sensory issues accompanying their autism collide with the setup of many music venues. The anxiety-provoking combination of loud music and crowds means they struggle to attend gigs alone: “I go to a lot of gigs, and I tend to have to go with another person, or otherwise it’s even more stressful. Most of the time, I wear ear defenders, stand near the back and take very, very frequent breaks.”

If Knight doesn’t take these steps, they may have to leave early. Inaccessible venues don’t help: “Autism brings me a lot of fatigue, and not having spaces to sit down is really difficult. It would be nice to not have to ask for a chair, and some venues don’t even have chairs, which is ridiculous.”

There is an overlap between autistic access requirements and those of people with other conditions, such as chronic fatigue. Although not all people diagnosed with autism identify as disabled, many autism advocates do, and think their struggle is linked to accessibility for disabled people in general.

Read more at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/10/its-upsetting-the-autistic-music-fans-being-shut-out-of-gigs

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