Our Recent Open Worlds and Immersive Arts Bootcamp events were put together as a series of inspirational talks and workshops, enabling participants to begin learning journeys in the digital immersive arts with the aim of progressing their own creative practice or expanding their career.

BOM has a special interest in neurodivergency. We have lived experience of autism and ADHD within our team and on our Board. Since BOM’s inception, our interest in creative digital practices has frequently aligned with the special interests of many in the wider autistic community especially, so it was essential that if all attendees were to engage fully with the content on offer, we would need to put strategies in place to enable participants to bring their best creative and focussed selves to the tasks ahead of them. Here our programme assistant Claire talks to BOM’s Engagement Manager, Chloe Lawson about how she went about achieving that.

CD Hi Chloe could you introduce yourself and explain what your role at BOM is?

CL As the Engagement Manager at BOM, I’m here to bridge the gap between the high quality, immersive digital and tech experiences that we work on or present, to make our programme engaging for a whole range of different communities. For young people that could mean our monthly CoderDojo meet ups, or our children’s annual Summer Camp. We also have a range of curriculum enrichment programmes for schools, universities, and for groups of young learners who are unable to access mainstream education. I currently run projects with neurodivergent adults (predominately autistic) from the age of 25 through to 70 years old.

My job is to run meaningful, impactful workshops and experiences that will help people, specifically neurodivergent people, become independent, to access the support that they need and find work or a career pathway.

My job is quite varied. Essentially it is about creating opportunities and experiences that will enrich peoples’ lives.

CD When the initial idea for an Immersive Arts Bootcamp was floated, what were your immediate concerns for making all the events accessible for a neurodivergent audience and how did that measure up with what was achieved during the actual event?

CL My initial concern was about how we could encourage neurodivergent people to sign up for something that was quite unusual and outside their comfort zone. The fear of the unknown is a significant barrier for many autistic people. It is my job to put everyone at ease and to communicate clearly about what experiences were on offer and what support would be in place to enable them to engage with those experiences. It was essential to do that early within the process in order to make potential participants feel safe and enable them to take a bit of a risk. I knew I’d have to provide those reassurances even before anyone signed up.

Concerns were managed early in the process of organising access for the Immersive Art Bootcamp because of the extensive learning processes over the last 4-5 years, working with creative autism consultant, Sonia Boué to really understand what needs to be in place prior to any project we run for neurodivergent people. Sonia’s expertise has been part of BOM since the beginning, it’s due to the work I’ve done with her that I know what those concerns are and how to put pragmatic support in place at all stages of working with neurodivergent people.

There were some things I would have liked to have done but there were time constraints and privacy concerns to work around. From some of the feedback I’ve had, one very useful thing to have had would have been some kind of dossier that contained a name and a picture of all the attendees. We addressed the unknowns concerning the building, the schedule and what was on offer and info about the wider BOM team but some of the participants would have benefited from knowing who the other people they saw around them, were too. This would have been problematic to compile though, not only from a data protection perspective, but there was the issue of time and its unlikely everyone would want to contribute. Sometimes there are outside limitations on the gold-plated, best practice strategies that we’d like to offer.

We did think about starting off a slack account or a Discord channel so people could be in contact each other from the get go, but those things often need to develop organically to be authentic and is usually more sustainable when it comes from the participants themselves. Which is ultimately what happened, some of the participants formed their own WhatsApp group to keep in touch.

Ultimately, what really, really matters when organising events like these is that there’s one person that they can come to about anything, that they are a safe person in a safe space. Which is why I introduced myself to everyone far in advance of them coming in.

It’s about putting everything in place so that individuals can be independent for the time they are with us.

CD What was the sign up process? What were those accommodations that you put in place for neurodivergent attendees?

CL The first strand was the 1:1s. When people first applied or showed an interest, they had an email back from me saying it would be great to have a 1:1 meeting with them in whatever format they preferred, online, in real life, by phone or by a series of email communications. I’ll always run with whatever method of communication people are comfortable with. Some people aren’t comfortable with Zoom, some people don’t want to meet in real life, just because of the spoons needed to get themselves here but conversely some have a need to scope out the space and the journey that they’ll need to navigate ahead of the event. I try to be as adaptable and as flexible as possible to give participants the communication options that suit them best.

This level of contact was necessary because I needed to find out a little bit about their tech practice and their knowledge level, any access needs and to be available to answer any other questions they might have.

The second strand we implemented, was ensuring we’d thought about all the spaces that were needed. We utilised rooms that are really tucked away like the snug (our dimly lit quiet space, perfect for a moment of calm). We created a connected Sanctuary on the mezzanine floor, I was really chuffed with that. So often people need 10 minutes out to decompress. In other organisations they’ll be given a cupboard like space, which is really depressing and feels like a naughty step.

I was keen to have a space where that connectedness to the main events was in place. The sanctuary space had a large screen with a live feed to the talks and workshops, so even though a participant was taking time out, they could still absorb what was going on from a comfortable distance. That worked really well, especially during the first week when we had so many events and people around, it had the potential to be overwhelming. Being able to provide the option of still being included but being able to do it in a calmer way, was really good.  When it came to lunchtime, our meeting room, (dubbed the ‘We Run This’ area due the large mural with that very message) also became a breakout space, one that wasn’t too noisy and no one had to interact with neurotypical chit chat, which can be quite challenging.

This is where thoughtful accessibility provisions can benefit everybody, quiet spaces were used by neurotypical participants too.

Part of having dedicated spaces was also making sure that there was clear signage around the building, so people felt confident negotiating their way around independently. Good signage makes a building friendly. We even mark up our cupboards to say what they are!

The third strand was about the information that went out to all participants. That was in the form of an information pack and also via dedicated website pages.

The first week had multiple events and a different theme every day. I was determined to have potential sensory issues highlighted for every different activity on the itinerary, so people would know what to expect, whether that was loud noises, flashing lights or participants might have to experience the weight and constriction of using VR equipment. I also spoke to all the contributors individually, so that they all knew that they needed to communicate with their audience about upcoming sensory issues.  This meant everyone was in the loop and could make plans accordingly.

The pack also provided details about the spaces they’d be able to access and introduced myself as their lead person, plus details of all the visiting contributors.

The wider team were made aware of more specific needs of some of the attendees, for instance we had people with chronic pain who couldn’t sit on hard chairs for any length of time, so staff would routinely check to make sure the correct chairs were available for them.

CD What barriers stand in the way of people engaging with and excelling at these kind of learning events? What barriers do most people take for granted?

CL Trying something new is a major barrier. The amount of spoon energy it takes to even apply and navigate sign ups for an opportunity like this… there’s a whole cascade of thoughts that flood into peoples’ minds. I did have participants contacting me with lots of questions which I could answer and gauge with them, whether the opportunity was going to be a good fit for them and get them to sign up if they felt comfortable, with the understanding that they could contact me at any time to ask me as many questions as they needed.

Lack of funds and digital disadvantage is always a barrier. We were aware that people may not be able to turn up with their own up to spec laptop, so we hired in kit. The problem being that the hired laptops go back, and the participants go home at the end of the 3 weeks with a USB memory stick with all their work on it but their home learning journey potentially ends there due to lack of a high spec computer. As an organisation we are looking at how we can address this in the future, maybe providing access to technology further down the line, but it’s a barrier right now.

We had a workshop using a rokoko suit for motion capture, I’d love a set of those for all our engagement communities to work with at BOM but they’re something like three thousand quid each!

At a more modest level, we were able to meet travel expenses and provide lunch for the first week, but that’s as far as the budget could stretch. Providing money for childcare costs would also be on a list of barrier-breaking options. We didn’t have the resources to set up bootcamp to work remotely this time, but that would certainly help people engage with some of the workshops.

Everyday life events are a barrier too. There are so many daily challenges that stop people from pursuing their interests and careers. Sickness, caring responsibilities and job centre interviews all affected our participants’ attendance during bootcamp. There are so many challenges that neurodivergent people have all the time in terms of processing information, communication and social structures that stretch energies over and above neurotypical people on a day to day basis. People are also held back by their own lack of confidence and imposter syndrome. I am very proud of the engagement that our neurodivergent participants gave during our 3 whole weeks of quite intense immersive workshops.

 CD How did you reassure people who came to you saying I’m not sure if my skills are good enough to sign up for this?

CL I always start with, where are you at the moment? Whether that’s tech skills or any other area of life. Then it’s possible to gauge whether Bootcamp would be a good thing for them to do. In some cases, it was clear that I needed to say, ‘this one might not be for you’ or ‘the whole three weeks might be difficult, what about trying some events during the first week?’, or we might have other things coming up that might be more appropriate. One of the things I was very aware of was that bootcamp would be very intense. We were asking people to spend 3 weeks focusing and although autistic people often like to deep dive into this kind of stuff, it’s still a big ask. I adapted the different offers we had to suit the individual participants, because the last thing that I wanted, was for them to join up and struggle with it, then feel like its their fault that they’re struggling. I needed to be quite honest and gently direct about managing their expectations.

CD What feedback have you had from participants who attended?

CL The following quotes are from our anonymous audience surveys taken during bootcamp, we’re feeling quite chuffed to be honest!

“The attention to access needs has been amazing. It’s been one of the most diverse rooms I’ve ever been in, and so much better for that!”

“Open Worlds has been fantastic – I have learned loads of new things + feel really inspired.”

“Very welcoming and relaxed”

“I really enjoyed finding out about other people’s work.”

“BRILLIANT! – So well organised and thought out. Really interesting and inspiring artists and talks!”

“Amazing opportunity in bootcamp, meet amazing, inspiring people & open a huge door for me to challenge the next step in Arts with accessibility.”

“It was good and useful”

“I felt very welcome + the staff were v. friendly”

“I like the format, an early evening, some food + drink, time to explore each work and talk to the artists. Helpful staff.”

I had more feedback via personal emails, with detailed ideas of how to tweak future camps so that the experience is even more seamless, but the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, so we’re all feeling really pleased with how it went.

CD Building on that, is there any one idea that’s been so effective that you’d like to put it out there as an idea for good practice that other organisations might want to consider?

CL I’ve got two things. Firstly, an organisation needs to provide one person who is a safe person to go to for everyone’s access needs. That person needs to be trained and understands the issues involved, so that when someone is having a meltdown that they know, for example, just to sit with them and let them do their stuff. That person needs to give the right information at the right time. That person knows when somebody needs time to decompress before they start work. That person needs to know as much as possible about individual accessibility and inclusion throughout the organisation. To achieve this, that person needs training and the experience of having spent a lot of time one to one, with lots of neurodivergent people. It helps if that one person is neurodivergent and it really, really helps to have an external autistic consultant because that brings legitimacy and authenticity to the task.

The second point I’d like to mention is about the connected safe space. Like the connected sanctuary that I talked about earlier. That’s really important, so that people don’t feel they’re being punished for needing some time out. It has to be a truly welcoming and comfortable space. It needs to have weighted blankets, it should have comfortable seating, ear muffs, and the lighting needs to be considered. The room needs to be connected in some way to the office or wherever the organisation focus is, even if that’s just via an observable CCTV feed, so that people are not excluded from what is going on in the rest of the building.

 CD What does success look like? Can you give us an example?

You know you’ve done good, when your participant is on your settee, with their shoes off, under a weighted blanket, and they’re linked in by Zoom to what’s going on downstairs through their laptop that is balanced on their legs, and they’re so relaxed they are now asleep. That’s when you know you’ve created a space where they can unmask, just be and blossom (after their power nap!).

 CD Imagine that you’re going to create a similar series of events in the future. Imagine that there’s no budgetary constraints, what accommodations or practices would you like to put in practice?

CL I think the best way for us to use an unlimited stream of money to break down barriers would be for us to have high spec laptops at BOM that people can come in and use, book an afternoon or whatever they need, with a lovely team of tech people to troubleshoot and keep the kit up to scratch.

Money is great because it gives you choices, but it isn’t the whole answer. It’s not an abundance of money that delivers accessibility. Before that, there needs to be an abundance of thought and kindness. A wealth of consideration is worth more than anything else.

Unlimited thought and unlimited kindness are far better placed to deliver accessibility in the long run because if you don’t have that, whatever kind of budget you have is going to be poorly spent.

 CD Thanks Chloe, that’s a great point to finish on.

If our Open Worlds and Immersive Arts Bootcamp sound like something you’d like to experience for yourself, sign up for our monthly newsletter and you’ll be amongst the first to hear of events and learning experiences at BOM.