Yesterday, I attended the AANE (Asperger/Autism Network) 2017 Spring Conference, which was titled Hiding in Plain Sight: Shining Light on Women with Asperger/Autism Profiles. It seemed primarily geared toward professionals working with people on the autism spectrum, but two of the keynote speakers were autistic women, and there were quite a few of us in the audience as well.
VoxVisual wrote up an excellent recap at her blog already, which is great, because I am still too wiped out to be that organized. <grin> And honestly, I don’t know that I would have too much to add when it comes to describing the speakers, the venue, and the overall experience. So go read her summary, if you want to get an idea of what the conference was about.
(And yay, we got to meet! 🙂 That was really cool, even if we had to postpone dinner plans due to exhaustion.)
But while I don’t want to duplicate her efforts in recapping the conference, I do want to write about my subjective experience of planning for, getting to, and physically attending it. First of all, I was selected to read an essay I had submitted, as one of six personal accounts of being a woman on the autism spectrum. (You can read that essay here, if you like.) So even before conference day, I was interacting with the organizers to polish up my essay and make sure I was ready to present it. The volunteers I emailed and talked with were very good about setting expectations and answering all of my questions — clearly they (as women on the spectrum themselves) were aware of some of the anxieties that might arise.
The week before the conference day, I made sure to print out all of the information I would need — directions, schedule, a clean copy of my essay to read — and make a checklist of other things I would need to bring. I wanted to bring plenty of water, for example, and I would be bringing my own lunch. Lunch was included in the conference registration, but having recently cut wheat out of my diet, I was concerned about the gluten content of the sandwiches offered. Besides, I figured the day would be stressful enough without subjecting my body to unfamiliar food (which doesn’t always agree with me).
Google Maps told me the drive would be about two hours each way, but I would be driving in toward Boston (and back out again) around rush hour, so I gave myself extra time. It ended up taking me about 2 1/2 hours each direction; I left home around 6 am and got to the conference center (after parking and making my way through several wings of the hospital building) a little after 8:30. The first speaker didn’t start until 9, so that was perfect.
Check-in was easy, but walking into a large crowd of people outside the venue was disorienting. And it wasn’t just the people: there were tables with food and coffee, other tables with pamphlets and fliers for the organizations who put together the conference, and too many other things to look at. So I went in to find my seat; at least I knew I was supposed to sit down in the front, and when I got there someone recognized my name tag and directed me to a seat.
Since I was early, though, I stood back up to see if I could find Vox. We had told each other what we would be wearing, and shown each other pictures, so this turned out to be easy. 🙂 I felt like we immediately clicked, and spent the rest of the time before 9 chatting about several different things. (As would come up later at lunch, with some other women, socializing with other Aspies/autistics can be soooo much easier!)
I went back to my seat just before 9, where I met a couple of the organizers and some of the other speakers. I felt a little exposed sitting in the front row, right in front of the podium where most of the speakers would be standing (and therefore where the camera for the live-stream would be pointed). This didn’t become evident until the second speaker, though, because the first was himself being live-streamed from the UK. Being in the front row also meant I was looking up most of the time in order to see the slides, or up at a different angle to look at the speakers’ faces. The venue was fairly bright, too, and sometimes the sound was too loud, while other times it was too quiet.
By the noon lunch break, I had finished all of my water (I was very warm for most of the day, as well) and was developing a low-level tension headache. My neck and shoulders were tight, something that had crept up on me without my really noticing it. I think it was all of the ambient noise from the crowd — people turning pages as they followed along with the speakers in their printed slide packets, occasional whispered conversations, people moving around. These are the same sorts of things that had stressed me out while working in an open-plan office, things I didn’t even consciously notice until I learned I was autistic and tried wearing noise-canceling headphones. I guess I still don’t notice them until they’ve built up into tension and pain.
(As an aside, it was interesting to read Vox’s observations of the reactions from the audience, and what things seemed to surprise or interest — or upset — them. Since I was in the front row, I didn’t get a perspective on that.)
Lunch conversation was great, and it was good to get some food. (I also snagged some more water.) It probably wasn’t the best idea when I suggested we seek out a table in the larger hospital cafeteria to eat — it was busy, and sometimes hard to hear each other over the dull roar — but it wasn’t clear where else we could have settled down to eat. The rooms near the conference venue were already pretty full by the time we all got our food.
Settling back down for the afternoon, I was already pretty fried. As I mentioned earlier, I was really warm during most of the day. It was a very cold day, but I thought I had dressed in a way that struck a balance between keeping warm outside and not being too bundled up inside. Apparently I should have worn something a little lighter. It also didn’t help that I was scheduled to present my essay in the mid-afternoon, so I had most of the day to be nervous in anticipation of that. My nerves weren’t too bad in the morning, but during Liane Holliday Willey’s talk after lunch, it was all I could think about.
I also felt like my voice was going to be hoarse from all the talking over lunch and during breaks — but I didn’t want to drink too much water before I had to talk, because I hate the feeling of having to pee while trying to focus on something else. So I decided it was probably for the best for my mouth to be a little dry; it would probably help my voice sound a little clearer than if I had too much moisture.
(Seriously, these are the logistical practicalities that run through my head all the time. All. The. Time.)
In the end, I was very happy with the way my presentation went. My knees were shaking, but my voice wasn’t, and I had a podium on which to steady my hands. After I was done, I was very happy to be sitting in the front row, because I only had a few steps to walk before I was back at my seat and out of the public eye. And I definitely felt my shoulders relax — though not completely — when it was over.
Maybe because of that feeling of finally-now-I-can-relax, I kind of floated through the last talk of the day. It also was a bit less relevant for me, as it related more to parenthood, but I did enjoy some aspects of it. Mostly I was just getting hit by the cumulative weight of all of the sensory input of the venue, the social interactions during lunch and breaks, and the cognitive processing of listening to all of the talks, as well as all of the logistical planning required to navigate through the day. I managed to have a few more — really excellent, I have to say — interactions after the event was over, but yeah, I was very much done.
My brain was foggy with all of that by the time I left, and I still had a 2 1/2 hour drive home — over half of it in the dark. At least in this direction I was leaving the city traffic behind, and most of the night driving was on familiar terrain. I had listened to an audiobook on the way in, but by evening I was talked out and needed music. So I put all of my Dar Williams albums on shuffle and sang along with her for the whole way home. 🙂
Overall, this was a great day, and I enjoyed the conference immensely. While I think there may have been some ways in which the venue might have been improved as far as sensory issues — Vox mentioned several in her post — I also feel like a lot of the things that eventually wore me out were just…going to wear me out. I also think I might have been better off sitting somewhere in the back for the morning, and only down in front during the talk right before my presentation. I would have felt a bit less “on display” and also would have been farther away from the epicenter of all the light and sound.
I feel like there is so much more to say — for example, I really, really enjoyed listening to the keynote speakers and the other first-person accounts, and think they provided a lot of good information and perspective, especially to those in the audience who weren’t on the spectrum. But I wanted to write this up as an example of how…involved it can be to attend something like this as an autistic person. And now I’m going to enjoy a nice quiet weekend to unwind, because I can. 🙂