Designing for difference: how live events are adapting for neurodiverse fans

Illustrations by Pia-Mélissa Laroche

With up to 15% of the UK’s population thought to be neurodiverse, it’s vital that promoters and venues find ways to make going out more accessible – we caught up with those in the community leading the charge

When Meshi Askar-Harris reached the front of the queue at a popular club night in east London, they were expecting a simple yes or no answer to their question. “I asked, ‘Do you have any flashing lights tonight? It’s not clearly sign-posted on your website.’ And they went, ‘Oh, well. I guess I can check if it means that much to you.’” As a person with epilepsy, strobe lights can trigger seizures, and they’d enquired to assess the risk. 

When we speak months later, the interaction still sparks palpable frustration. “You want to call your night accessible and a safe space, but you can’t even be bothered to turn your strobes off because, when you boil it down, you care more about having a flashing light at your event than disabled people,” they say. “That’s pretty shocking.” 

Meshi’s experience isn’t unique; nor are their concerns. For many of the 15% of Brits who are thought to be neurodivergent, the very qualities that are considered hallmarks of a good live event – strobe lights, loud music and overcrowded dancefloors – can be a minefield. And until recently, there weren’t many options to help people with sensory-processing issues and other needs navigate them safely.


But as conversations around diversity and accessibility have moved to the fore, venues and promoters are finding new ways to accommodate those with specific needs – and it’s people from within the neurodivergent community leading the charge. Meshi is one of them: in August 2022, they cofounded Spectrum, a bi-monthly queer club night at Dalston Superstore, with friend and DJ Maze Bracher to provide a space that is specially designed to meet the needs of neurodivergent club-goers. 

“One of the big things about Spectrum is really showing people not only that a club night for them is possible, but there are people that care,” says Meshi. “By creating neuro-queer spaces, we want people to realise their experience in any situation is valid, and that there are people that are willing to take the time to understand their language.”

It’s the little things

The differences between Spectrum and a conventional club night are, at first, hard to spot. You might hear upbeat club classics and pop edits on the ground floor, where go-go dancers in full rave looks are dancing on the bar, while harder sounds travel up from the basement. (“People who are neurodivergent tend to play a lot of high BPM, like techno, gabber – our brain is just dun-dun-dun dun,” explains Maze.)  

But then you notice the little things. Speaker volume is capped at 86 decibels, strobe lights are banned, and with capacity limited to 220 – about 10% less than the venue’s maximum capacity – you have more room to dance without brushing up against another person. There’s also the fact that every performer and DJ on the lineup identifies as both queer and neurodivergent. 

“When you’re in a room full of people with a similar mindset and accessibility needs, everyone feels a lot more comfortable. I stim out, my masking stops. I literally can’t even talk to people because my stuttering comes out really bad because I’m just so excited that I can be myself and no one cares,” says Maze. 


A sense of calm

Another Spectrum speciality is the “chill zone” – a designated area stocked with free sensory toys, earplugs and water. Supervised by a hands-off welfare officer, it’s a space people can retreat to when they’re feeling overstimulated.

Such spaces are becoming a more common sight at festivals, too, thanks in part to the work of Diverse UK, a charity that facilitates social connection among people with autism. Last year, it organised Glastonbury’s first sensory calm space. Initially promoted to attendees who had pre-registered with the festival for access facilities, the large black-out tent was a space to relax on bean bags in relative silence, and make use of weighted blankets, sensory toys, textured items and ear defenders. At night, moving images (the kind you might expect from a Windows 95 screensaver) were projected on to the walls. “Things that will help people hopefully reduce their brain frequencies to feel less overwhelmed within a 20-minute period,” says Bristol-based accessibility consultant and Diverse UK Project Manager Harry Jones, who came up with the concept. 

The aim was to provide guests, who might otherwise have left the event or isolated themselves in their tents after having a meltdown or a panic attack, with the space and the tools to soothe themselves – a difference in intention that sets the sensory calm space apart from “sanctuaries” or welfare tents you might find at live events. 

“When you go to a welfare tent when you’re stressed out or overwhelmed, people tend to try and touch you or talk to you to reassure you because, obviously, that’s quite a good way of calming someone down if they’re comfortable with it. And it’s also quite a hectic environment, with people who are drunk or on drugs not having a good time. But actually, this is the complete opposite of what people who are neurodivergent need,” explains Harry. “It’s actually a space to recalibrate the brain through sound, texture and visual stimulation.” 

Along with Glastonbury, Diverse UK brought sensory calm spaces to Secret Garden Party, Boardmasters and Forwards Festival last year. And this summer, it’s expanding further, with a full slate of festivals (including repeat showings at Glastonbury and SGP, and debuts at Reading and Leeds Festivals), as well as contracts with Bristol Pride and the Star Wars Celebration convention at ExCeL London.

Adapting to change

Modifying the live environment is one thing – but it doesn’t solve every problem. “People who don’t necessarily know a lot about autism think it’s just loud music that’s the problem, but actually, that’s not always the case – it’s also all the little bits. It’s the queuing, the waiting; it’s not knowing if there are places that you can go to when things go wrong without having to leave,” says Harry.

Acknowledging the diversity of needs, DICE partner the Clapham Grand in south London has instituted an accessibility policy based on collaboration and communication. “Because everybody’s needs are so individual, we encourage people to talk to us, to give us a call or drop us an email to explain what it is they need, particularly with neurodiversity, because there are so many different triggers that people react to very differently, and we like to know the specifics of that, if they’re comfortable telling us,” says Meg Conroy, the venue’s Event Manager. 

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Given Clapham Grand’s listed status (it’s one of London’s oldest surviving music halls), infrastructural changes aren’t an option. But the team have been able to institute subtler changes, such as arranging for guests to jump the queue to avoid the stress of waiting in line; and inviting people to arrive and settle in before doors open, so that they can watch the room slowly fill up around them, rather than navigating an already rammed space. The venue has also kept one of its six premium theatre boxes free for guests who’d rather avoid the crowds entirely – at no extra cost. 

At Spectrum, Meshi and Maze always welcome attendees to speak to them in person, or send them a DM on Instagram if there’s anything they’d like to see changed at the party, from volume levels to the choice of sensory toys on offer. “Accessibility is an ongoing conversation,” says Meshi. “I think the mistake a lot of promoters make is that they think that everyone needs the same kind of accessibility, everyone needs the same kind of safe space. And I think it’s totally OK to say, ‘I can’t adequately create a safe and accessible environment for everyone based on my experience.’”

There will always be limitations to what can be accommodated, whether due to venue restrictions, cost, or the fact that some requests just won’t be possible. But still: it’s better to take steps towards creating a more accessible space that more people can enjoy, when even the smallest change can make a substantial difference. 

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