Navigating Festivals While Autistic
The weather is warming up and that means that festival season is upon us! That’s right, it’s time for celebrations big and small, all of which are likely to include lots of people, music, food, and other great stuff. Autistic people want to join in the fun, too, but we have to walk a line between enjoying ourselves and getting overwhelmed. With that in mind, I give you my (incomplete) guide to navigating festivals while autistic.
*Please note: This is good for most anything from a local peach festival to a mid-size Renaissance Faire, but it’s not really intended for big festivals like Coachella. Also, this is written for autistic adults, although all these tips will help autistic children enjoy a festival as well.
There’s a very annoying saying that gets thrown around a lot: “failing to plan is planning to fail”. I hate that line, but I have to admit it’s true, especially as an autistic adult going into a potentially overwhelming situation. When you’re heading to a festival, think about what’s likely to be going on there and what you’ll need to deal with it. Here in Louisiana, there are two constants at any event: food and music (and both are always great). There will probably also be brightly colored decorations, booths of art or crafts, and frequently even dogs. Not to mention the weather could do almost anything.
My best advice is to bring a backpack or crossbody bag and carry whatever you think you might need, such as:
- Ear plugs or ear defenders
- Jacket or umbrella depending on the forecast
- Hair ties
- Female urination device for scary port-a-potties (practice at home first!!)
- Sunscreen (you wouldn’t go outside without it, right?)
- Cash/ID – you should always bring these anyway
- Pain or anxiety meds if you have those conditions
- Stim tool(s) – plush toy, chewy, etc.
- Snacks if you’re a picky eater
Some events will not allow outside food and drink, so you’ll need to be prepared for that, too.
Conserve your energy for the fun
We all know that our meltdowns aren’t only brought on by our environment – they also depend on how tired or stressed we are. With this in mind, we need to remember to take care of ourselves so we can enjoy the festivities with our families and friends.
My first suggestion here is to limit how far you have to walk from your transportation to the festival itself. You’ll be walking all over the festival as long as you’re there, you don’t need to exhaust yourself walking half a mile just to get in. Look into shuttle service from distant parking, take your time finding close parking, or consider going a bit earlier or later when more close parking will be available. Maybe you could even have a companion drop you off near the entrance. This is especially important for anyone who’s also dealing with chronic pain or mobility-limiting conditions.
Stake out your breaks
Once you’re inside the festival grounds, take a minute to look around and get your bearings. See if you can spot a quiet, out of the way place where you could go sit down and chill out when you start to get tired or stressed. And yes, I said “when”, not “if” you need a break. Just assume that you’ll need a time out at some point and plan for it. There will probably be an area on the outskirts of the action or between areas of the festival that would suit your needs. The last festival I went to was in a park, and a part of the playground right next to the entrance was empty. I made a note of that and immediately felt a little less stressed just because I knew where to go if I started to get overwhelmed.
Don’t fight the crowds
There will be crowds. That’s what festivals are about. I know this can be the worst part for some of us, but we can deal with it. My favorite technique is the path of least resistance. I learned this back in high school as a way to get through the hallways without getting battered by everyone else’s backpacks. All you need to do is look for the holes in the crowd (there are always spaces between people unless you’re on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras) and move through those holes. This means you won’t be walking in a straight line and you’ll be much more aware of other people than they are of you, but it keeps you in control of how close you have to get to people and helps prevent bumping into anyone.
If you’re with other people, holding hands as you move through the crowds is another option. In some cases this technique can help, especially if you’re short and your companion is tall or if you have trouble looking up due to overwhelm and the other person can guide you. However, it could also make things more difficult. One person can move through the holes in the crowd more easily than two people, and if your companion isn’t fully aware of what you’re dealing with, they might end up almost dragging you around. I have had this happen and it is terrible. But holding hands will definitely keep you from getting separated, so it’s definitely something to try.
Minimize sensory overload
There’s always a lot of sensory input going on at a festival, but there are ways around pretty much all of it that will still let you enjoy the experience.
In the food area, there will probably be a ton of smells all mixed together, some of which will be trash cans or other nastiness. If that causes you a problem, just follow your nose to a yummy-smelling booth or an area without much scent at all. At my local fairs and festivals, I tend to gravitate toward the funnel cake or cinnamon-roasted nut booths because I love those smells. These events are almost always outdoors, so fresh air isn’t hard to come by.
The music at festivals can be really loud and sometimes overpowering. I definitely suggest bringing some kind of ear protection, even if it’s just little foam earplugs from the drugstore. But more importantly, remember that you can enjoy music from a distance. Some people always want to be right up at the stage, but you can usually hear just as well from 10 or 20 yards away. Many NTs prefer a little distance from loud music, too, so your non-autistic friends and family will probably like this solution.
Be prepared for animals
I don’t know about where you live, but around here, people like to bring their dogs everywhere they possibly can. A lot of festivals are dog-friendly and sometimes the local shelter makes an appearance with several doggies in kennels looking for adopters. Now, I am not a dog person in the first place, and dogs get really excited and overly friendly at festivals, which always leads to a lot of barking. So this can be a real challenge for me, but I have a few rules I follow.
First, I try to ignore the dogs (because some of them kinda scare me). They’re always leashed and their humans watch them, so I just give them a wide berth and go about my day. If I do get the urge to pet a sweet puppy (they’re furry animals, of course, I want to pet them), I always ask the human holding the leash first! Some dogs don’t like being touched without notice any more than we do, and I certainly don’t want to upset an excited dog. They might also be service dogs at work. In the event of a barking outbreak near me, I hightail it out of there and find a quiet spot as quickly as I can. As long as I don’t make myself stay there and try to “power through it” or some such nonsense, I can get over it pretty fast and get back to having fun.
The most important part of enjoying festivals while autistic is to take care of yourself. Understand that it’s going to be a tough environment to deal with, be prepared for what you might face, and give yourself the time and space to stay calm and have fun without too much stress! I also recommend being honest and upfront with your companions about what you need.
Do you have any tips for navigating festivals and fairs? What do you do to stay calm in the midst of all the commotion? What is the best thing NT friends or family could do for you at a festival?