Learning patterns/Avoiding sensory overload at Wikimedia-events

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A learning pattern forconferences
Avoiding sensory overload at Wikimedia-events.
problemWikimedia events can be high-stimulus. At any event there will be Wikimedians who are susceptible to sensory overload. This patterns give suggestions for event organisers.
solutionWith some relatively simple modifications events can be made more comfortable for participants susceptible to sensory overload
created on09:45, 27 February 2019 (UTC)

What problem does this solve?[edit]

Sensory overload occurs when somebody experiences over-stimulation from the environment:

  • loud noise, or sound from multiple sources, such as several people talking at once.
  • crowded or cluttered spaces, bright lights, strobing lights, or environments with lots of movement such as crowds or frequent scene changes on television.
  • strong aromas or spicy foods
  • tactile sensations such as being touched by another person or the feel of cloth on skin.

People who are susceptible to sensory overload can experience a number of upsetting symptoms such as "shutting down" or getting overexcited, difficulty focusing and concentrating, irritability, sleeplessness and fatigue....

A number of conditions make people particularly susceptible to sensory overload. It is associated with, for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (Source: Wikipedia)

Wikimedia events can be high-stimulus. We have to be aware that at any event there will be Wikimedians who are susceptible to sensory overload.

What is the solution?[edit]

Wikimedians who are susceptible to sensory overload do not want to be pampered or treated differently. They want to participate. With some relatively simple modifications events can be made more comfortable for them:

  • Don’t make things unnecessarily complicated and avoid too many things happening at the same time. This relates to event programmes, but also to the layout of information materials and website, background music and decorations, the design of social events...
  • Avoid confusion and uncertainty: provide clear and correct information about what will be happening when and where. Cluttered, not user friendly event communication is often more of a trigger for sensory overload than the fact that many things are happening.
  • Provide simple means to escape the noise and the crowd, during the event itself and during social gatherings.
  • Ensure that (one or more) event organisers can recognise when people are beginning to suffer from sensory overload, and know how to provide adequate support. If there's no one in the organiser team able to provide such a support, there may be groups available offering such kind of work.

Things to consider[edit]

Information flow

  • All communication should be up to date and correct.
  • All communication should be clear, structured and direct.
  • Using (only) apps for communication should be avoided, but a Telegram group is OK.
  • Provide paper copies of essential communication (programs, venue-maps, itinerary etc).
  • Avoid the use of lurid & complicated designs, flashing images etc.

Program design and event spaces

  • Be careful with programme elements like ice-breakers, social warm-ups, exercises such as ‘introduce yourself to the person next to you’. These should never be compulsory.
  • Have clear themed tracks, provide a good overview of things happening and maybe give people the possibility to tailor event schedules to their needs and interests.
  • Be careful about introducing too many audience-participation elements.
  • Take care that sound systems are in good working order in meeting rooms (e.g. mics not generating feedback screeches or loud background hiss), that doors to corridors are/remain closed during sessions, and that participants are aware they should not speak among each other during presentations.
  • Provide a quiet, low-stimulus room at the venue where people can withdraw from the bustle and noise. Check regularly that this room is not being used for storage, meetings, workspace etc. At a big venue, try to create additional quiet spaces in corners, hallways, etc.
  • Preferably choose a venue with easy access to safe outside areas (garden, court yard, nearby park), ideally away from busy roads.
  • Provide quieter, less stressful alternatives for crowded breakfasts, lunches and buffets (e.g. in a side-room).

Venue and overnight accommodation

  • Having the meeting rooms and the overnight accommodation in the same venue, or very close to each other, reduces stress (no travel, easy to withdraw to your own room)
  • Provide clear information about transport from venue to accommodation.
  • Room sharing can be a problem. If possible provide a number of single rooms.
  • Have a ‘quiet floor’ in the hotel/hostel with rooms for those who are sensitive to noise or need their sleep.
  • Choose hotels/hostels with easy and safe access to outside space (roof terrace, garden, nearby park).
  • Ban/restrict/tone down background music ( 'muzac') in elevators, restaurants, corridors.
  • In restaurants and break-out rooms, set aside some small tables with a limited numbers of chairs for people who prefer smaller groups.

Social events

  • During parties and social events, create possibilities for participants to temporarily withdraw from the noise and crowd
  • Create/support opportunities for people to organise small group dinners
  • Avoid continuous loud music

Provide support

  • If you organise events frequently, or are organising a large event, it is worthwhile to train one or more people so they can recognise the signs of sensory overload and provide adequate support. Partnering with a specialised organisation is also an option.
  • Make clear to participants how they can get into contact with a knowledgeable helper.

When to use[edit]

This learning pattern can be used as a checklist when organising Wikimedia events of any scale. It is particularly relevant when organising bigger events.


See also[edit]

Related patterns[edit]

External links[edit]