Millions of people attend festivals in the UK every year. Whether this is to dance, learn, laugh, or engage with art & culture and connect with others, recent research has strongly suggested that attending festivals and cultural events improves social connectedness, psychological well-being and even illness management & physical health benefits.
In fact, a study by UCL researchers evidenced strong biological stress down-regulating impacts on festival-goers, with endocrine and hormonal activity associated with stress and anxiety (including cortisol) significantly reduced after an event. Long-term improvements in cognition and depression levels have been indicated as another benefit.
Following the isolation and mental health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, sharing experiences with others is more important than ever. Research at Yale has indicated that attending communal events with others can be transformative, increasing our human connection, sense of belonging and pro-socialness. Other contemporary research has focused on the reduction of social alienation and rejection that festivals can provide.
Strong links have been made between autistic and ADHD people’s connection to art, culture and music, and the benefits engagement in this can have in regulating their stress and managing anxiety, over-stimulation and communication.
However, these important and potentially life-improving benefits aren’t necessarily accessible to everybody, including those belonging to neurominority groups such as autistic, ADHD-identifying, dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysgraphic people, as well as those with OCD
Despite a strong desire to attend, many neurominority people cannot access festival spaces.
This can be for many reasons, related to auditory, visual, olfactory, and other forms of sensory overload, social anxiety or physiological symptoms from being around crowds or barriers to predicting and planning in high arousal environments.
There are also other more nuanced reasons that neurominority people do not attend: the executive functioning demands of gaining entry, the self-monitoring and perception demand for monitoring one’s emotional, nutritional & hydration levels throughout the day, difficulty transitioning between high-stimulation areas of the festival and the low-stimulation ones, and not feeling that they have a space to comfortably belong being just some of them. Festivals are highly social environments, so they may also be avoided if support isn’t in place to manage the impacts of non-diagnostic experiences, including Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, experiences of Burnout or Inertia.
Encouragingly, some festivals worldwide provide a ‘calm space’ where sensorily overwhelmed people can go to a quieter, low-input environment. These also cater for people in crisis or, to an extent, in meltdown – signposting to mental health first aiders and medical tents.
These spaces, therefore, tend to focus on extremes and take a ‘reactive’ approach: providing a low/no stimulation area for when someone has reached overload, meltdown, shutdown or crisis. They are spaces to escape to and recover in.
Whilst there is a clear need for this, there could be a more proactive approach. These spaces are not somewhere to enjoy experiencing, to up or down-regulate in, or (if people want) to be stimulated and to connect with like-minded and differently-minded people in.
Further, from talking to the people we support and members of our neurodiverse team, we recognise that more than this may be needed to be inclusive to all neurotypes.
Whilst a ‘calm space’ is helpful to people with a sensory-avoidant profile who need to reduce sensory input to regulate, this does not cater to people with other sensory needs.
For example, ‘sensory seekers’, who may need to ‘upregulate’ and be stimulated in specific and managed ways to reduce their anxiety, may find that a low sensory space doesn’t fit the way their brain works.
This NeuroInclusive space will be run by members of our specialist neurodiverse team, who have a great mix of research-informed knowledge, skills and lived experience. They will help make the space somewhere where neurodivergent people can come to be curious and engage, asking any questions they would like to.
Using their skills in sensory profiling, our team will be able to help people identify their needs and specifically adjust the space to meet them. All our team members will communicate in clear and unambiguous language, which we believe benefits interactions between all neurotypes. They will also be available to provide individual support in a private environment, which may include ‘check-ins’ to help individuals who find it challenging to identify their feelings and where these stem from due to alexithymia, interoceptive and introspective differences, and ensure they get what they need to enjoy themselves. Water and snacks will be on hand, to help those who may struggle with drinking and eating enough on the day.
Our team members will also be on hand to validate and support however attendees feel and even support them in accessing other parts of the festival with body doubling. They will also be able to help with buying food and drink, for those who find transactions overloading. Many neurodivergent people have sensitive taste profiles, and our team will also be able to point you towards (or go with you to) the best places to get food that suits individual tastes, including specially arranged plain food.
We don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach to meeting people’s needs and that what works best are individually-tailored adjustments in collaboration with specialist professionals in an environment that is comfortable.
With this in mind, we have designed this to be fully adjustable to individual needs, whatever they are. Attendees will either be able to choose their own experience or be supported to use the space in the most comfortable and enjoyable way possible.
Resources will be available with coloured overlays, dyslexia BionicReader text, adjustable fonts and sizing. Neutral-smelling hand sanitiser will be available, as well as a private and clean toilet for those concerned about hygiene, or interoceptive differences that can make toilet use less predictable and more urgent.
To cater for all brains and sensory needs, we will be dividing the space into fully separated-off ‘zones’: the Sensory Avoidant Calm Zone, the Sensory Seeker’s Stimming Zone, the Temperature Regulation Zone and the Co-Regulation Zone.
We’ll now go through these in terms of what’s in each one and the thinking behind them.
Someone’s sensory experience can shape their enjoyment of any event. In this zone, people can access a low-sensory input environment that they can shape using customisable lighting and audio. This provides space to support decompression and pause (for however long) before returning to the festival environment.
An often-forgotten element of sensory overload and self-regulation is proprioceptive and tactile comfort. To support this, this zone will have soft un-patterned bean bags (some with arms that like a ‘held’ feeling), weighted blankets and extra layers for people to ground themselves with.
To reduce visual overload and processing discomfort, which are often a cause of overload and anxiety at high-stimulation events, this zone will have limited visuals and patterns on the walls, with bluelight and filtered sunglasses available, along with adjustable LED lamps which can be dimmed and coloured to suit preference.
To address the impact of auditory overload of the live music environments, a selection of adjustable noise-cancelling headphones will be available to choose from, catering for individual preferences for fit and degree of cancellation. Music, meditation, relaxing soundscapes, nature sounds, and podcasts will be available, as well as the option to sit in silence to reflect and process. Alongside the benefits of giving control of their sensory input, this may also give people a chance to try out different headphones before investing in a pair.
In this zone, sensory mindfulness sessions will also be run to support those who benefit from focusing their sensory input, but don’t benefit from traditional mindfulness or meditation.
For many neurodivergent people, reducing stimulation is not helpful and can be overwhelming. Instead, it is the ability to move, stim and unmask in a safe, supported and non-judgemental space that helps to regulate dopaminergic levels for improved focus, anxiety and emotional well-being and reducing feelings of fatigue or burnout.
Societal stigma over natural stim movements causes harmful camouflaging behaviours and self-judgement for many neurodivergent individuals. This will be a space where people can be around others who are truly being themselves in whatever way works for them, an experience indicated in research to have short and long-term mental and physical health benefits.
In this space, a wide and eclectic selection of the latest Stim, Fidget and Sensory toys will be available, incorporating all the textures, colours and movements imaginable. This will allow a rare chance to try out what works for them, share tips with others, and discuss what would suit them with members of our specialist team.
Different textured materials and scent bottles will be available for those stimulated or calmed by olfactory experiences.
Customisable lighting will give control over visual input, along with captivating patterns and visuals.
Temperature sensitivity, changes in the climate and self-monitoring differences have been linked to sensory overwhelm, anxiety and meltdown in research.
Whilst the UK summer weather isn’t always predictable, providing a space where people can be supported to regulate their temperature will address an often forgotten but crucial aspect of sensory processing.
In this space, fully adjustable air conditioning fans will allow choice over being cooled or warmed as preferred, along with blankets, handheld fans, and ice, providing options that suit everyone’s temperature regulation needs.
Even more excitingly, a pool of water will allow people to paddle or dip their feet into the cool water, with cups to target cooling down specific parts of the body.
This is an interactive space where all neurotypes can meet, discuss ideas, share experiences and games together, and even learn something new.
For many neurodivergent people, managed individual or shared activities that engage motor and cognitive skills and ‘flow’ can support emotional, anxiety and sensory regulation.
To reflect this research, this zone will be full of specially chosen puzzles, board games, jigsaws, Sudoku and colouring books that can be used alone, supported by a member of our team, or with newly made friends in the neuroinclusive space!
Research has shown that neurominority people often find it easier to connect with each other than with neuromajority people and that this is hugely beneficial, especially when supported and in small groups.
For many, social interaction can feel challenging and may be avoided even when someone wants to meet people. We understand how much support and scaffolding can help this, so we will provide ‘conversation starter’ cue cards, structured conversations on important topics, and Q&A and discussion sessions.
Zentangle and group Sensory Mindfulness sessions will also provide opportunities to regulate, focus and zone in with others.
To add to this, we will be displaying artworks by an autistic artist, and there will be guest speakers talking about neurodiversity and the creative process.
This will be the first neuroinclusive space to support all neurotypes, sensory profiles and adapt to the needs of individual attendees using specialist support.
We will learn a great deal to bring to the subsequent iterations; however, by creating this innovative neuroinclusive space in conjunction with Wellnergy, we hope to lead the way to open the benefits of festivals to all!
Hopefully see you there!