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Grapevine helps people experiencing isolation, poverty and disadvantage in Coventry and Warwickshire. It does this by strengthening individuals, sparking community action and shifting power across services.

Use this Guide to help you create virtual events and meetings that are more welcoming, inclusive and accessible for neurodivergent people.

“Neurodivergence” is a term for someone who learns and processes information in a different way from what is considered ‘typical’. It’s often used as an umbrella term for people with either autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But it can also be applied to other conditions, such as dyslexia and anxiety.

These tips can also make video conferencing more appealing and comfortable for everyone, whether or not they are neurodivergent or disabled.

Steps to running online events and meetings that allow neurodivergent people to engage more easily 

Neurodivergent people may have different needs when it comes to attending virtual events or using video conferencing software.

For example, people with ADHD or autism can experience:

  • oversensitivity to stimuli

  • issues around distraction and divided attention

  • difficulty processing verbal instructions.

Start by asking people that you work and meet with if they know what their needs are when using video conferencing tools.

Start by asking things like:

  • “What functions do you currently use on your phone?”

  • “Have you ever used Facetime or video chat on WhatsApp?”

  • “Is there anything you like or dislike about communicating using video?”

This will help you build a picture of general issues and worries that people have. You will begin to identify patterns in people’s:

  • technical abilities

  • comfort using certain technology

  • technological limitations, such as data constraints, WiFi access or device type.

Grapevine’s work to make video conferencing better for neurodivergent people began during the coronavirus pandemic.

They reflected that because of how quickly workplaces had replaced face-to-face events with virtual ones, some of the natural considerations for comfort and access had got lost.

“We went virtual and lost all sense of ‘normal’ and created ‘abnormal’ platforms, and didn’t ask anyone if that’s ok.” - Naomi Madden, Director of Projects, Grapevine

Grapevine worked with human connection consultancy Deepr, to see how they could better work virtually. During the online workshops, Grapevine staff realised that when they were put into groups and given a task, neurodivergent people had the most difficulties.

In response they created a written guide and a video for staff, to help them make virtual events that worked better for neurodivergent people.

Based on your broad research into how people use video conferencing tools, choose a browser or software that you feel most fits with what people need.

You might try something and then find it doesn’t work for someone, or you may need to use different video software with different people. No one tool is accessible for all people.

This is an opportunity to test and adapt based on user feedback.

Grapevine chose Zoom because people found it easiest to use on a smartphone. People also liked that it allowed them the most control over settings. 

Grapevine still give people a choice of platform based on their needs.

They usually use Facetime for iPhone to talk people through installing and using Zoom on their phone.

Ask each attendee what reasonable adjustments they need. Some people might not know, if they are not used to the technology. But they might tell you other adjustments they need that might apply.

Consider the adjustments you might make in a face-to-face meeting for someone’s comfort. Can anything be replicated or adjusted for a virtual event?

Check the person has the means to connect and access the technology

Are they using WiFi or will it cost them extra if they use their mobile data? Can they access free WiFi?

Do they understand how to use the functions on their phone or do they need assistance?

Arrange a one-to-one chat over video

Ask if they are comfortable to start a video call.

Then take them through the functions, including how to:

  • mute themselves

  • turn their camera off

  • blur or set a background

  • use expressions, reactions or emojis

  • use the chat function, for example staying on topic

  • change their name, for example to remove their surname for privacy or to add pronouns.

Explain what they should do to make themselves comfortable, such as having a drink or snack nearby, and what to do if they need a toilet break.

Show them a screenshot of a Zoom meeting so that they know what to expect.

Grapevine decided it was important to make people aware of what can be seen or heard on video. This is important for people who aren't used to having a web camera on in their home.

Grapevine identified safeguarding risks to attending virtual events, especially large group ones. So they ensure that people:

  • understand online etiquette

  • can manage their security and privacy settings

  • are mindful of sharing sensitive information in front of a group of new people, just as they would be in person

  • understand about wearing appropriate clothing.

Based on people’s needs that you’re now aware of, check if there are any specific settings you need to add or change. For example:

  • disabling the chat function if people find it distracting

  • adding captions to help people with hearing impairments and to help neurodivergent people stay focused

  • transcript, for people to see what was previously said.

Disable direct message function between participants (being private messaged by someone they've not met before can make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable).

Disable screen sharing between participants, so they cannot share with others.

Enable direct messages to the host or facilitators.

Make sure you and other facilitators can mute people on arrival.

Check everything you need to run alongside the event is set up and working, such as welcome music.

Have a waiting room, with a welcome message before the event starts

Have a message in the waiting room to let people know that they are in the right place and avoid them feeling ‘in limbo’. Tell people what to expect from the event and when it will start.

Mute people on arrival

This allows people to come into a quiet, calm space. It can feel socially intense if they sense an expectation to chat on arrival.

Tell people what to expect

Once you’ve welcomed people, introduce the event.

Share the agenda and give a detailed explanation of what will happen.

Explain what moving into a breakout room will look like so people know what to do and expect.

Explain the chat box etiquette

People talking over each other breaks all the normal social rules and can feel rude. You may choose not to have a chat running when people are speaking, or disable it altogether.

Consider how much information you share

Consider how much information to share on a screen. Think about overload, divided attention and the additional cognitive tasks associated with working virtually. These can all be more difficult for neurodivergent people.

Allow additional processing time in virtual events. Go slower.

Be clear when screen sharing

When sharing a screen, be explicit about where people should be looking on it. People may struggle to know where to start and will struggle to process information.

Give timing warnings and prompts

We can all lose our sense of time in virtual meetings. Neurodivergent people can have difficulty estimating or keeping track of time, so it’s important to have time checks.

Stick to the agenda so that you meet people’s time expectations.

Elect someone who keeps an eye on the time. Be upfront about how long someone has to talk and give prompts when the time is ending.

Give warning about timings, such as if you are running over time or if the event is about to end. This is to avoid people experiencing an abrupt ending and so that they are aware of why the event pace has changed.

Grapevine found that playing music as an event starts helps create a relaxed environment. This allows neurodivergent people to:

  • regulate their nervous system

  • not feel distracted or on edge.

They also leave music on at the close of the event.

They welcome people by name as they arrive, to make them feel at ease. They also leave the event running until the last person has left, so it feels more like leaving a ‘room’ naturally.

Grapevine use breakout rooms in larger online events, to let people work in smaller groups. They found this gives people who are confident the opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

“Encouraging people to take on a facilitator role with 2 to 3 others can be a great step to helping them communicate virtually.” - Naomi Madden, Director of Projects, Grapevine.

Follow up with attendees after the event to get their feedback. You can ask things like:

  • “Is there anything we can do differently next time to make it a better space for you?”

  • “Did you learn anything about your needs?”

  • “Is there anything you can transfer to other interactions to make things easier for yourself?”

Keep a record of feedback so that you can apply it next time you set up a virtual event or meeting. You could also use the feedback to create a guide to making video conferencing accessible for people you work with.

Virtual events have replaced face-to-face ones in many instances. But do not forget that it’s just as important to create a warm and welcoming space online as it is in person.

Reflect on how the social norms and etiquette that people have learned and expect from face-to-face interactions can be mirrored virtually. This will make the environment much more comfortable for neurodivergent people.

Take regular opportunities to reflect on specific things you have done to improve video conferencing meetings for neurodivergent and disabled people.

Look at your record of feedback. Are there more things that you can change to increase accessibility?

Review your digital safeguarding policy, or create one. Review it every time you make a change or use a new platform.

Also review whether platforms are still fit for purpose and meet security requirements.

Further information

You can read more advice on how to make virtual events work for everyone in Building human connection with groups of people using Zoom.

Need to create a digital safeguarding policy? Use Catalyst's DigiSafe guide.

There are other things you can do at work to support neurodivergent people. Read how to use digital technology to support neurodivergent staff