I updated “Interaction Badges: Opportunity but Not Pressure” with a longer selection from “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity”.
In 1995, an organization for parents of “high-functioning” children asked Sinclair to organize a series of presentations at an upcoming conference. He opened up the process to the members of ANI-L, who explored ways of making the event as a whole more accessible and comfortable for people on the spectrum. They requested that a special quiet room be set aside for people who needed to chill out or totally shut down for a while. They also devised an ingeniously low-tech solution to a complex problem. Even highly verbal autistic adults occasionally struggle with processing and producing speech, particularly in the chaotic and generally overwhelming atmosphere of a conference. By providing attendees with name-tag holders and pieces of paper that were red on one side and yellow on the other, they enabled Autistics to communicate their needs and desires without having to articulate them in the pressure of the moment. The red side facing out signified, “Nobody should try to interact with me,” while the yellow side meant, “Only people I already know should interact with me, not strangers.” (Green badges were added later to signify, “I want to interact but am having trouble initiating, so please initiate an interaction with me.”) These color-coded “interaction signal badges” turned out to be so useful that they have since been widely adopted at autistic-run events all over the world, and name-tag labels similar to Autreat (” autistic retreat”) green badges have recently been employed at conferences for Perl programmers to indicate that the wearer is open to spontaneous social approaches.
The conference began with an orientation session in the main lodge led by Sinclair, who explained the guidelines that had been established to maintain and preserve the environment as autistic space. Photographs and videos could only be taken after asking for permission, and only outdoors, so that the flash didn’t trigger seizures. Cigarette smoking and perfumes were banned. Respect for each person’s solitude and personal space was essential, and the interaction badges allowed everyone to know at a glance who was open to talking. All of the conference events were optional, including the orientation itself; the overriding principle was “opportunity but not pressure.”
I updated the title of the post to include “Opportunity but Not Pressure”. I’ll elaborate on and emphasize this further in a future update, tying it into presentation culture and psychological safety at school and work.
But in the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options. This week, a tweet posted by a 15-year-old high-school student declaring “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not to” garnered more than 130,000 retweets and nearly half a million likes. A similar sentiment tweeted in January also racked up thousands of likes and retweets. And teachers are listening.
Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.
Public speaking can indeed cause “long-term stress and harm”. See “Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Masking and Passing” and “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.”.
I also added a photo of and link to the communication necklaces we use in our unschool.