A Pilgrimage to the Hackathon Room

Dr Olivia Gatfield, Autism CRC

Including people on the spectrum is crucial to the success of the Autism CRC Hackathon as they are the user experience (UX) experts. Charged with ensuring we could provide the best possible experience for people on the spectrum, Rickkie Johnson and I visited the venue last month along with two other autistic adults - Tori and Joel.  These guys, along with other autistics, have taught me that people on the spectrum can do anything, but some minor adjustments can make a huge difference. 

We discovered that getting to the Hackathon room was quite an event in itself - there is a rotating door (help those of us who are from warm states as we’ll be the ones stuck in there), a sign-in procedure, a security check and two lifts to access the room.  Feeling the anxiety rise?  Relax, we got lots of photos on our visit and are developing a guide to the event.  This will include photos and instructions for getting to the room, photos and descriptions of the rooms, emergency evacuation procedures, and pictures and contact numbers for Rickkie and I. We are the autistic engagement support people and will be available in-person or via text for the entirety of the event. 

One of things we needed to consider was the sensory environment.  Hackathon events have the potential to be really noisy and the event is to be held in a ‘ballroom’ with floor to ceiling windows.  I conjured images of wooden floors and high ceilings - an acoustic nightmare - with our eyeballs being burned by glare (I started hoping for rainy days - sorry Melbournians!).  To our relief, the room is carpeted with unpatterned carpet (this can be a sensory issue for some) and acoustically considered.  But, to help reduce cross-pollination of sound between the project teams, we will spread them throughout the large room.  Kitted out with electronic blinds of the future, translucent or black out blinds can be lowered so we don’t have do a Bono and wear sunglasses inside (you are welcome to though and probably should if you are a U2 fan). 

Although the Hackathon room ticks many sensory boxes - the event itself may be overwhelming for some.  Our game plan is twofold.  ANZ have let us use a smaller room on the same floor as the Hackathon room.  This will be our chill out zone - a quiet, dimly lit room that anyone can use to have some down time.  Lounge in a beanbag, fiddle with some sensory objects, pop in some disposable ear plugs, grab a cup of tea, chill with an adult colouring book.  We ask that people don’t bring food into the room (smells can be a sensory issue for some - and I’m naming and shaming you tuna), and please don’t talk on your phone or approach people.   The other essential element of our game plan is to have small red dot stickers that anyone can put on their visitor badge.  This signals to people that you would prefer not be approached for a chat.  Put on your dot, grab some food, take a seat, soak in the experience - all without having to make ‘small talk’. 

These are small things indeed, but we hope that by taking these steps we can help reduce anxiety some people may feel and ensures the space allows everyone to have the best possible experience.