Scottish Autism conference 2019: a personal perspective

My other post on Scottish Autism’s 2019 conference gives a blow-by-blow account of the conference as it happened, based on my live tweets. This post is more of a reflection on my own personal experience of the event, as a newly diagnosed autistic person attending a conference like this for the first time.

When the morning alarm on my FitBit – which I usually ignore! – went off at 07:30 on 14 November, I was already standing on the concourse of Haymarket station in Edinburgh, ready to get the train to Glasgow. I just had to wait for my travel companion, Fiona Clarke.

We got one of the slightly slower Edinburgh–Glasgow trains, so that we’d arrive in Glasgow Central station and avoid having a ten-minute walk from Queen Street. The longer journey also meant more time to chat and plenty of time to enjoy a cup of coffee without gulping it down!

Anna’s lanyard with her conference badge and a conference booklet attached
Guide on lanyard – very handy

Because our train was slightly delayed, though, it did mean that we arrived at the sumptuous Grand Central Hotel just a little after the official conference start time. Still, even after picking up our conference lanyards, we’d only missed some of the general introductory stuff. (We probably wouldn’t have known where to go in the event of a fire. Luckily, there wasn’t one.) Speaking of lanyards, having a small conference booklet attached to the lanyard was a nice touch!

There were a lot of people at the conference, seated at big round tables. It was a much grander affair (even for the Grand Central Hotel!) than I’d anticipated. Fiona and I found seats at a table at the far side of the Grand Room (a lot of grandness about!). As soon as I’d got to my seat, I opened up my laptop and started typing!

The first couple of keynotes whizzed past, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the fabulous Sara Jane Harvey, who more than lived up to my expectations with her natural expressiveness and stims. And Damian Milton was as erudite and informative as I’d hoped.

I had to meet Sara, of course, and headed over to her table at the break. She was absolutely lovely, and I’m very glad I managed to get a selfie with her too! OK, I admit it – I was fangirling a bit!

I popped into the foyer to get a coffee, but they had just about run out, so I only got half a cup. It was also painfully echoey with everyone chatting over coffee, so I quickly headed back into the Grand Room. (After that, I made sure I put my noise-cancelling headphones on before going into the circulation areas!)

Gnocchi in a tomato sauce with mozzarella, tomato and basil salad on a Grand Central Hotel plate
A grand luncheon

After the third, somewhat disappointing, keynote, on trans issues, followed by Damian’s first seminar in a small side room, we had lunch, which was not at all disappointing. There was a buffet with a wide choice of food, and I picked a gnocchi dish with some lovely mozzarella, tomato and basil salad.

Afterwards I got some more coffee – a full cup this time – and picked up a lovely chocolate mousse cake (which I could easily have eaten too much of if I’d been able to get my hands on more!).

I took time during the lunch break to have a quick look round the various information and book stalls. The tagline on the banner at one stall, that of Action for Asperger’s Scotland, left something to be desired: ‘Counselling lives affected by autism and Asperger’s syndrome’. Yikes!

White, green, yellow and red interaction badges on a table
Interaction badges

Interaction badges were available on a table, but I didn’t see anyone actually using one. It might have been preferable if they’d been given out at registration. Also, given that things can change during the day, switchable colours would have been better than single-colour badges (though there was nothing to stop anyone picking up a set!). Ear plugs and seat-reservation signs were also on offer at the same table.

It was nice to see ‘flappause’ (the BSL-inspired silent applause) being used throughout, although flappause for a speaker going to the stage quite often stopped before they’d got there and turned round to be able to see it! There were quite a few times, too, when the tiniest smattering of audible applause could be heard just before the person in question remembered the rules!

Besides the echoey foyer, as I’ve already mentioned, the Grand Room, which doubled as a lunch spillover venue, became very noisy in breaks, not only because of people chatting, but also because somebody, somewhere, decided to inflict loud piped music on us, just to increase the overall unpleasantness. Grrr.

Sara Jane Harvey and Catriona Stewart, sporting wide-brimmed black hats
Fabby hats!
View through an assortment of bottles of spirits to the departure boards at Glasgow Central
Drinks and departures

At the end of the day, live tweeting done, and despite feeling quite tired, Fiona and I joined a few people in the hotel bar upstairs (which I’ve only ever seen from the station concourse before – it has a great view of the departure boards and general station activity!).

I got to chat more to Sara, as well as to Becky Wood, Charlene Tait and others. It was a slightly noisier environment than I’d have liked, but it was only for a short time.

I was very pleased to have been able to attend the conference (and, again, I’m grateful to those who supported me so that I could go). From what I can gather from having spoken to others, the conference was fairly unusual in the amount of input from autistic people – nothing about us without us! Most of the non-autistic speakers were fairly sensitive and respectful of the community they were talking about, the one notable exception to my mind being James Barrett, who came across as somewhat detached from either of the two intersecting communities he was there to discuss.

I’d definitely like to attend similar conferences in future, as my own understanding of myself as an autistic person becomes clearer to me (I was only formally diagnosed in July). I’d also love to attend the Autscape conference in the summer if the timing works out and I can afford to go. That would be a great opportunity to meet lots of different autistic people from around the UK and beyond.

Fiona and I eventually headed out of the hotel and into the station to catch our train back to Edinburgh. On the way out, we spotted a conference information board propped up against a wall and decided to take it with us. (Fiona is, after all, a Scottish Autism board member!) It proved to be a conversation-starter on the train journey – but I’m very glad that Fiona handled the conversation because that was beyond me.

Fiona and Anna on a ScotRail train with a large (A0?) poster board with information about conference sessions
Taking the conference on tour

More about the conference: as it happened.

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