With registration open for two more days, Autsape Organisation is moving towards its first ever online conference.
Since 2005, fifteen Autscape conferences have been held in the UK. They have become popular both as a retreat and as a focal point for learning, discourse and debate. A supportive and accepting community is now established, and Autscape has helped to break many people’s isolation by facilitating networking and the creation of circles of friends. Other events run by autistic people around Europe have been inspired by Autscape and adopted some of its ideals and practices.
Speaking at EUCAP’s webinar last month, Martijn Dekker, the Chair of Autscape Organisation, emphasized tolerance and inclusion as some of the key principles. As an organisation, Autscape differs from many others in that it does not take a stance on any political questions, welcoming as participants even those whose opinions are unpopular among the majority of autistic people.
Leneh Buckle, current programme coordinator and one of the core organisers for the past 15 years, co-presenting with Martijn, saw both challenges and possibilities in Autscape’s popularity.
“Back when Autscape started, there was a real need for a neutral meeting ground that was specifically designed for and run by autistic people, so that autistic people could be welcome there and do whatever they wanted to do. Several other organisations in the UK can trace their roots back to some people having met at Autscape. This is continuing to serve a need. While we may not be in the business of changing the world, we do sort of change the world indirectly, by simply sticking to our business.”
“We have been growing over the years, from 45 people to over 200, and it’s getting out of hand for some people, not being able to come because now Autscape has too many people! We are considering extra events, and we were just about to run one in Ireland when the pandemic hit. We are hoping to do that next year, and to start having additional events.
With the main event, we are going to have to consider whether we will keep growing and growing, or put a limit on it.”
Autscape 2020, the sixteenth one, will be very different from all the previous ones. Many regular participants struggle to come to terms with this, as some key aspects are lost. Many of them usually enjoy re-connecting with friends they’ve met through Autscape, and only have a chance to meet in person once a year.
In addition to the main programme, Autscape venues have always been carefully selected to allow outdoor activities, as well as informal gatherings in many different indoor spaces.
Walking, swimming, arts and crafts workshops, card games and stim toys have been popular features, as has ‘sparklies in the dark’, an evening gathering with glow and light-up party toys. Child care has been provided to allow parents to participate on an equal basis with others. The physical framework and on-site services generally signal that Autscape is family friendly, and that it is about community, creativity and well-being.
On the organising side, this year’s Event Manager, James Pelham, has been steering a team under pressure, facing constant uncertainty and changes of plans for several months.
“The transition from a live event, which we had already started planning, and an entirely online one was (predictably) stressful. We have had to acquire new technological abilities in a short amount of time. There are some things we can’t predict, and we hope that our participants will be understanding as we find our way through.
Having said that, I’ve been happy with the way the Board and the organisers have stepped up to the challenge, with us all being largely enthusiastic and helpful to one another.”
Some positive things are emerging from this new situation. This year, there will be speakers from the United States, Canada and India. Organising a conference entirely online is cheaper than a three-day residential event, and participants do not need to travel to the venue, which eliminates some obstacles to participation – while others may arise, related to participants’ skills in online environments and access to suitable devices and internet connections.
The time and effort now invested by the Autscape Organisation in adopting new tools and learning new skills will help to reach even wider audiences in the future. The final push to add online elements to Autscape has been lacking before, as resources have always been limiting. The organisation has no external funding or paid staff, relying solely on attendance fees and the voluntary work of its board, organising team and short-term volunteers recruited to assist in various tasks. Now online participation should finally become established as a permanent part of Autscape.
Increase in online presence and activity also tends to lead to a growing focus on international connections and synergy. James Pelham likes the idea of these possibilities: “I’m delighted that we are working in closer partnership with EUCAP, and I look forward to seeing the development of more Autscape-type events happening all over Europe”