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Autistic Music Fans Being Shut Out Of Gigs

July 11, 2019

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support during childhood, from a special educational needs coordinator or mental health services, often see this help withdrawn as they get older, resulting in that social isolation.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.

For example, Robin Jax, an autistic Leamington musician, cites commentary made by “the wider disability rights people I follow on Twitter” on the inaccessibility of DIY music venues as relevant to autistic people: “You put it all together, but did you put it together for everyone? No, because you have to go through several flights of stairs, the lights are nonexistent or too much, the way that things are laid out is often very confusing.”

Disabled people are protected by the Equality Act 2010, which stipulates that businesses provide “reasonable adjustments” to make venues accessible. The difficulty is that autism is hugely varied – it’s often said by neurodiversity advocates often say that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person – and it is hard to provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Overwhelmed by the number of issues raised by the access needs of autistic concertgoers, some may be reluctant to make changes, particularly if they lack resources. But there are simple, inexpensive adjustments venues could make.

Earplugs, for example, are a lifesaver for many autistic people as well as a necessity for many concertgoers who wants to avoid hearing damage. But although some venues say earplugs are available on request, hearing protection at gigs is by no means ubiquitous.

Rowland Straylight, a musician and DJ with Asperger syndrome who is based in Leeds, says: “I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to explain that I’m carrying a pack of earplugs and not some kind of drug paraphernalia.” Normalising the use of hearing protection would be of particular benefit to autistic people who are sensitive to loud sounds, but it would enhance the wellbeing of all concertgoers.

Some of the people who have made music more accessible to autistic people are on the spectrum themselves. Robin Jax founded Tiergarten Records – a label for “neurodiverse musicians” – providing an outlet for autistic artists to get their work heard. He defines neurodiverse as “having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of normal”. The label is small, based in Robin’s home, but it releases music in both digital and physical formats. “As far as I’m aware, it is the only neurodiverse record label in the world, or one specifically around the themes of neurodiversity and neurodivergence.”

While Robin acknowledges the importance of sensory accommodations (for example quiet spaces where autistic people can recharge), he says there also needs to be a shift in attitudes within the music industry, from record label execs to venue staff. “If autistic people come as fans and are uncomfortable, they may feel their discomfort is something [venues] don’t want to deal with – that’s very upsetting.”

He recommends training for people working in the industry so that they’re more aware of the challenges autistic people can experience. Robin also says that unspoken music industry norms need to be made more clearcut so that autistic employees, who may struggle to intuit what’s expected of them, aren’t placed at a disadvantage.

There are charities working to enhance accessibility for autistic gig-goers. Attitude Is Everything (AiE) has worked since 2000 to champion the inclusion of disabled music fans, providing training and consultancy on accessibility as well as free online guidance. Helen Ellis, who is autistic and works as an equality, diversity, and inclusion Coordinator for the National Autistic Society, suggests a few simple ways the music industry can show its commitment to autistic concertgoers: “Publicising details about venues in advance, letting fans know if flashing lights are going to be used at any point and booking venues that have accessible seating.”

Social isolation isn’t an inevitable part of being autistic. Engaging with music, either as a hobby or professionally, is one of many ways autistic people can create connections with others ⁠– but only if they’re given the chance.

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