how do I balance my own disability needs with cultural sensitivity at work?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I am the team lead for a project developing a new social service, and one substantial part of that new service will be specifically for indigenous communities. Our team is beginning a process of indigenous community engagement, and we are being met with a lot of wariness/skepticism due to the long history of non-indigenous people coming into indigenous communities and attempting to “develop services” that actually harm indigenous communities (ex. residential schools, the sixties scoop, etc).

In order to develop this relationship, our main indigenous contact has invited us to a pow-wow and has suggested that we should attend additional pow-wows and indigenous cultural events as a way to build trust with the indigenous community (and presumably as a gesture of goodwill to show that we are willing to approach indigenous communities with humility and as guests rather than experts). I think this could be a very valuable thing for our team to do and I am supportive of the idea.

However, I am autistic, and in general I find cultural events (including religious events, parades, parties, concerts, assemblies, live music, musical theater, etc.) very overstimulating. I get overwhelmed easily by loud music and by crowds, and from my research about pow-wows, I understand that they are likely to be both loud and crowded. Typically when I need to be in loud/crowded situations (ex. on an airplane), I bring noise-cancelling headphones and take breaks whenever I’m getting overwhelmed, or I often choose to leave early (ex. at parties). However, I am worried that these strategies would seem disrespectful and inappropriate at an indigenous cultural event and would serve to undermine the relationship I hope to build.

But I also worry that I may not be able to tolerate many hours of loud music/crowds without exhibiting noticeable signs of distress, and if I look like I’m not enjoying myself or if I’m fidgeting/agitated/doing the normal things I would do to reduce overstimulation, that would also undermine the relationship with indigenous communities and also set a bad example for my team. I’m not confident in my ability to “mask” sufficiently well in this kind of situation to avoid others noticing my discomfort, and I think my anxiety about the possibility of getting overstimulated would put me on edge for most of the day.

I’m not sure how to handle this. I think going to the pow-wow is important and necessary, since I’m the primary contact for this project and it’s important that indigenous community members see me there and see that I respect their culture and am willing to learn from them. I don’t think I can just send someone else in my place. I also don’t feel comfortable disclosing my disability or potential disability-related needs.

None of my colleagues know I’m autistic, and in the past when I have disclosed my autism at other jobs, I’ve either been disbelieved (because when people think of an autistic person, they’re not thinking of a very high-functioning early-30s woman with two master’s degrees from an Ivy League school and a director-level position at a big organization) or treated with kid gloves (because people have assumptions about autism that they apply to me and suddenly assume I’m incompletent at my job).

But I also know that unfamiliar social situations + loud music + crowds are all triggers for autistic overstimulation (and I generally avoid events outside of work as a result…I never go with colleagues to a bar or pub after work because I just can’t handle it), and the stakes here are pretty high…I need to make a good impression in order to make this project succeed, and while I’m good at my actual job, I am NOT good at unstructured/unfamiliar social situations, especially those that are loud and busy. Any advice would be appreciated!

The comment section is open!

Many readers have pointed out that this question wasn’t well suited for an “ask the readers” question. I looked at it as a question about accommodations and navigating autism at work, when it really needed expertise from the Indigenous community in order to be posted here. Thank you to those of you who called it out.

I’ve removed most of the comments but am leaving up those with input from Indigenous commenters offering both advice for the letter-writer and input on why the question wasn’t a useful one to pose in this manner (and have moved the Indigenous input to the top). I’ve also left a handful of comments from non-Indigenous readers that tackled other angles that I thought might be useful to the letter-writer or others in a similar situation.

{ 98 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    As many readers have pointed out, this question wasn’t well suited for an “ask the readers” question. I looked at it as a question about accommodations and navigating autism at work, when it really needed expertise from the Indigenous community in order to be posted here. Thank you to those of you who called it out.

    I’ve removed most of the comments but am leaving up those with input from Indigenous commenters offering both advice for the letter-writer and input on why the question wasn’t a useful one to pose in this manner (and have moved the Indigenous input to the top). I’ve also left a handful of comments from non-Indigenous readers that tackled other angles that I thought might be useful to the letter-writer or others in a similar situation.

  2. Gyakuten Manager*

    Hi LW! I’m autistic and native, so I get to be a fun intersection of some of this. My tribe doesn’t have powwows historically but hey, pan-indianism is a thing and I’ve certainly been to a few others.

    I think the best option here is direct – “I’d love to be there, but there’s going to be some challenges for me as an autistic where sounds and crowds go. What do I need to know so I’m not disruptive?” Most powwows (in my experience) are not super organized formal events with tons going on – they’re gatherings. You’ll have dancers and songs in the middle doing their thing, occasionally it’s “everyone stand for this honor dance”, a few important ceremonies, etc., but beyond that you’ll also just see lots of people talking, often some shops set up like any festival, etc., and you’ll be able to find quieter spaces if some aren’t explicitly set up. Odds are decent some will be.

    Remember that autism is not seen as a failing or problem in many native communities and many of us see it as a gift (we have challenges, but we also have strengths others don’t and use those for our communities). Being direct about your desires to participate and needs in order to do so shouldn’t be met with any issue, and it’s showing that you respect the people you’re working for.

    As for the volume and crowds, what I recommend are “volume attenuators” or “concert earplugs.” They’re usually silicone and soft, and reduce volume without muffling. Previously I recommended Eargasm, but I can’t honestly do so now because they started selling NFTs. However, I’ve heard some people mention Loop before, and I’m sure that searching for alternatives to the brand will bring up good results. Earplugs like that are often quite discreet (clear except for a colored bit of plastic in the middle) and can be comfortably worn for a significant time.

    Good luck, and I hope you have fun!

    1. Gyakuten Manager*

      I should say be direct with your contact, and probably let them know that you don’t generally disclose that to coworkers because it’s not handled well. But I very much recommend speaking to the contact directly about this.

  3. ActualIndian*

    Hi, I haven’t read all the other comments but I suspect I’m one of very few indigenous voices or folks who have been to powwows.

    Definitely talk to your contact, but also, these events tend to have a vendor section, away from the main action, and it would not be unusual for you to spend a significant portion of your time chatting with them where it’s less crowded (ask questions about what they make, how, who taught them, what other styles there are, etc.)

    It would also be ok for you to hang out on the edges of the crowd, not sit down. Because too close to the action it’s hard to talk anyways!

    If you can get those earplugs, that might help, because attempting to participate in social dances would go a long way towards establishing trust and making you more visible within the community.

  4. Mshiikenh*

    Aanii boozhoo! I think you’ve already gotten a lot of good advice on this front. As an Indigenous person with autistic family, powwows are sometimes okay and sometimes not, and what we’ve done to make our family more comfortable is to keep lines of communication open and have strategies in place for when the water starts to get choppy.

    To echo what some others have said – Indigenous communities have autistic people in them, too. Indigenous communities are not a monolith, but generally autism has been around for us just as long as it has been for non-Indigenous folks. For the specific powwow you’ve been invited to, mitigation depends on the environment. Outdoor powwows are generally easier to get away from if you need a break from the crowds or sounds. Indoor powwows are noisier by the virtue of having loud music and crowds in one place, but sometimes there will be rooms or hallways away from the main area that you can use to recalibrate. Taking breaks from the main event are not at all uncommon and aren’t seen as disrespectful at any of the powwows I’ve attended (and that number is…extremely high). Example: although everyone is asked to stand and to remove their hats for honor songs, no one judges the folks who aren’t able to stand for the whole time. No one asks them what their disability is or why they can’t stand. You won’t be judged at a powwow for taking care of yourself.

    I don’t want to ramble on, but one final thing: this depends on the Indigenous nation you’re working with, but powwows are usually an easy entry point. Other cultural events that my tribe does around this time of year include things like dinners or quieter ceremonies to mark the passing of the seasons. The nation you’re trying to build ties with may have some similar events that you can go to that may not have as many opportunities for overstimulation as a powwow. I n’th the comments suggesting talking to your contact and seeing about a variety of things you and your team can attend to learn about the community in a respectful way. Best of luck to you!

  5. It Actually Takes a Village*

    (I am Indigenous, also autistic with similar sensitivities).

    In general, get used to being comfortable being uncomfortable. Also, assume that there are ways things are done that you don’t know anything about.

    There are a lot of protocols and teachings that are specific to each tribe, nation or community and it is your responsibility as the leader and representative of your group to ask those you are partnering with what protocols, behaviours, etc. are expected at various points.

    Gifting to elders and those sharing their time and gifts with you and your group is just one small example. In some circumstances, sacred medicines will be appropriate, sometimes blankets, sometimes other cultural gifts. This is not a time to make assumptions or to group all nations together in a melting pot of pan-Indigenity.

    To be honest, the centring of your comfort/discomfort does bother me quite a bit in this post, even with the knowledge that that’s why you wrote in. Indigenous people live in almost constant discomfort, and have been survivors of actual violence, up to and including actual genocide by organizations. This is why the distrust is here. For centuries, white people have come onto our land, into our communities, and literally banned our practices and ceremonies, rounded us up and trapped us in reserves, kidnapped our children, abused, raped, tortured and murdered them—all under the guise of “helping us”.

    If you’re actively committed to being an ally, you’re going to have to de-center yourself in this work.

    If you cannot do so, please consider hiring an Indigenous person with experience and cultural knowledge to do this work. It sounds like this might be a better solution, to be honest. This kind of work should be led by Indigenous people with lived experience, with allies assisting.

  6. Haud*

    As an indigenous person I’m struggling a little with the actual premise of this letter. Did the indigenous community ASK for the service you are building for them? Are they at the table and a part of the design/build process? Many tribes have and fund their own social services which are managed internally – will this project be duplicative? It doesn’t really matter how much you learn about their culture or if you attend a pow wow – the project and service itself will likely fail to be adopted in the community unless it’s built WITH them, not FOR them. This could be a concept that solves your hesitations as well. Instead of learning more about the culture, holding community meetings, focus groups, and inviting tribal leaders with the right expertise to the table in your actual project management are better ways to get the information and buy-in you need.

    1. Little My*

      I am a white non-Indigenous person, but this is what I was thinking as well. The main issue I see is not about individual sensory needs, it’s that everyone working on this project seems to be outside the community you’re trying to serve (which is why this question is even coming up). LW, since you say you’re a project director, can you work on trying to change that?

    2. Jessica Fletcher (RIP)*

      I think this comment, and any others from people who are actually Indigenous, should be pinned at the top.

      Alison, I think you should have specifically asked for input from people from this community, and even tried to find someone to officially weigh in. You do sometimes prioritize asking for feedback from parents, for example.

      1. It Actually Takes a Village*

        Yes, exactly.

        This is not actually about accomodations, but about the many, many, many ways whiteness inevitably harms BIPOC—even when well-meaning.

    3. Olivia*

      White settler here and this is the first thing I thought of too. The OP seems to really want to be sensitive and they seem to understand some of the reasons for the well-earned distrust (though it’s interesting that they made it sound like that’s all in the past)…but the way this is framed makes it sound like it’s still on the continuum of white saviorism. It sounds like they’ve already made at least some of the plans for how this new service is going to go, but they’re just beginning to do community engagement. That seems to me like the wrong order. It’s like “we have this service that we think will help you and we want to convince you it’s good” instead of “are there ways we can support you, how might you like us to do that, you lead and we’ll support you in the ways that you want us to.” The program sounds like it’s lacking this humility.

      I would caution the OP that just because some people in this Indigenous community want to partner with them and seem okay with the current framing of it, does not mean that they can get to a place where most of the community members will feel that way. I am reminded of a recent event where some elders of some Indigenous tribes met with the pope, accepted his apology, and gifted him a headdress. Every Indigenous person I follow on social media who mentioned it was like “what the f*** is this nonsense?!” They should be wary of this kind of tokenism and not think that their program must be okay because X number of Indigenous people are on board with it.

      1. young worker*

        I think this brings up an interesting question of when you can feel that you have sufficient support. You say that because “some” Indigenous folks are cool with it, it doesn’t mean that “most” are cool. How do you make that determination? A community leader says so? (but that leader may not speak for all folks). Or you poll or survey? (Not being sarcastic, I genuinely can’t figure it out).

        1. Schnapps*

          All it means is that like white settlers/colonists, you cannot treat “Indigenous people” as only people whose identity stem from that group. The members are individuals, with different experiences, traumas, and ideas. But you can acknowledge what’s going on and that everyone has a different perspective. It means you need to learn the shared truths of an Indigenous people before you can proceed with reconciliation.

          If you want more information, look up Indigenous Corporate Training. It’s a company run by the kids of Chief Robert Joseph who was one of the leaders for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chief Joseph himself is a residential school survivor. There are a lot of free and nominal cost resources on how to work with Indigenous peoples.

          As an aside, I’m told the word “Indigenous” should always be capitalized, in the same way we do other nationalities in English (e.g. Indigenous Canadian).

          (And the pope apology was weak at best and insulting to many Indigenous cultures).

    4. Gaawiin*

      YES. The LW sounds like they are trying to market a “service” to a community that did not ask for the service or participate in its design. Sounds like the local Natives are rightly suspicious of you, LW. Fancy degrees and all.

      (P.S. I’m Native)

  7. not using my real name for this*

    I’m Indigneous. I’m Cree.

    I’m extremely disappointed that Alison chose this of all questions to put out to readers (who if I recall correctly from Alison’s past demographics surveys are primarily middle aged middle class white women). The AAM comments section is in no way equipped to answer this. If anything Alison should have brought in an expert who is actually qualified to answer this.

    I’m also disappointed in this OP who mentions past instances of white people bulldozing their way in or assuming they know best. Then she proceeds to come in and do the exact same thing. She has never been to a Pow Wow and just assumes she knows what one is like. She hasn’t bothered to even speak with the Indigenous community about this. That in and of itself is an outrage to me. We have Austistic community members before, it’s not a foreign concept. The entire question came across as so patronizing and OP tripping over herself to come across as an ally but badly missing the mark.

    The question and many of the comments here have left me sad and disappointed.

    1. Beebee*

      I agree, this doesn’t feel like a thing readers can or should weigh in on. A majority of people here are not Indigenous and do not know about the history of Canada and Indigenous communities.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      But, what I have seen in the comments are two main things. First private work arounds, such as ear plugs to reduce the noise and second is for the LW to talk to her contact about her problem with noise, and crowds.

      Seems to me that talking to her contact is the best way to go, and that has been recommended multiple times.

      1. Nope*

        I think the point is less whether commenters have given bad advice and more whether this was an appropriate “ask the readers” question at all. Some of the commenters have indeed given pretty terrible advice, and most of the advice has been “ask someone else.” But I think the salient point is that this isn’t something to toss out to a room of random people. This isn’t a “how to follow the rules of business” or “how do I apply a mainstream cultural norm here” situation. This is a question about a very specific cultural and political situation, and it’s really dismissive to treat it the same way as “How can I work more effectively with recruiters?” or “What gifts should we give our employees?”

        This is an expert-level question, and if Alison doesn’t have the expertise to answer it, she should either have found someone who did or declined to publish it.

        1. Beebee*

          Yeah, also to me the only answer we could really provide is “talk to your contact”, which feels obvious enough this shouldn’t have been thrown to the readers. People are making some pretty offensive comments and (incorrectly, as I assume LW is Canadian) guessing what tribe this is about. All of that is very insensitive, and a First Nations person working on this project is the only person who can really help LW out.

    3. CharlieBrown*

      Thank you for this, and for mentioning your tribal affiliation.

      I don’t think OP is “bulldozing” her way in. She states they are in the process of building a relationship. And she’s not assuming she knows what a Pow Wow is like; she states she’s done research.

      And the only reason she and her team are going to the Pow Wow is because they have been invited by their Indigenous contact “as a way to build trust with the indigenous community”. I do think that we should cut LW some slack for trying to be sensitive to previous Indigenous experiences with outside cultures.

      That said, I do think it would have been better to reach out to an expert in this situation. However, this letter is unique, and Alison may not know of an expert to reach out to. (Note: a couple have popped up in the comments.)

      That said, I appplaud LW for asking the question and attempting to be considerate of Indigenous feelings. I feel a lot of the comments have been good ones (and some of them have been really bad). I do hope for an update from LW.

      1. Olivia*

        Assuming you are not Indigenous, it is not really your (or my, or most of the commenters’) place to say that “not using my real name for this” should cut the letter writer some slack. This is tone policing. A thing I see a lot on social media is someone in a dominant group makes an attempt to be considerate/sensitive, and thinks they are doing that, but someone in the group they are talking about says “Nope, you’re wrong, you missed the mark and here’s why.” And then other people in the dominant group come to their defense. That is not the right response if we really do want to do better.

        Being invited by one or a few members of the community does not mean that they are not repeating the same mistakes of others who came before them. To suggest otherwise is tokenism. It is the same logic that says “I have a wife, so I can’t be sexist.” That’s not how it works.

        It was quite telling that the LW acknowledged that there are good reasons why this Indigenous community doesn’t trust white people, but only mentioned things that happened decades ago. The oppression of Indigenous peoples on this continent has never stopped and someone who talks about it like it’s in the past is really not as far along in their journey as they think they are. The LW’s words, including those about the work their employer has done with this program so far, reveal that the people at her company who are doing this program have a patronizing, white savior mentality.

        The LW says that they don’t want to offend the Indigenous people in their community, that they want to respect them. “Not using my real name for this” has given them valuable feedback that can help them in that goal. Doing better in the future means we have to be willing to acknowledge that we were wrong. It means we have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of knowing that we had a racist mindset about some things and probably still do. Defensiveness only results in being just as racist as we’ve always been.

      2. Mailer Daemon Targaryen*

        However, this letter is unique, and Alison may not know of an expert to reach out to.

        To this point specifically: Alison has crowdsourced on Twitter for experts on letters where she wanted one to weigh in and she didn’t have any contacts (the two nonbinary writers who guest-posted a few months ago immediately come to mind). She could and should have done the same here.

      3. It Actually Takes a Village*

        She is bulldozing precisely by cantering herself and her own needs, and not even understanding the very basic and obvious fact that neurodivergent Indigenous people exist, so of course there must be a very simple and respectful solution.

        In my opinion, the letter writer is extremely unprepared to do this kind of work, to do it well, and to do it in a way that won’t cause actual harm to the community. Again, this is very basic stuff, and a clear example of why this work should be Indigenous-led, by Indigenous people, with lived experience.

        I am Indigenous (Métis) and autistic.

    4. Jayess*

      I weighed in before I scrolled down to your comment, and now I’m regretting throwing my two cents in.

      You’re very correct. I would also say to some of the other commenters that this is a case where context matters a lot. AAM-readership tends to be U.S.-American in experience and response… I think context is extremely important in this question, and many Americans have little to no idea about the history of Indigenous people in Canada’s history.

      I think it’s okay as an anxious settler who wants to be an ally to express those anxieties to other white people, instead of making Indigenous people do that emotional labour, but you’re right in saying this platform leaves a lot to be desired.

      1. Olivia*

        This so much. The LW does not express any doubts that this program will be good for the Indigenous community they want to work with. Do they not realize that the people running the residence schools, and all the other thousands of instances of genocide that have happened since then, that are still happening today, were also equally sure that what they were doing was good? Both the project and the LW’s outlook seem remarkably uninformed by the voices of Indigenous people today (except perhaps the handful of people they are talking to). It doesn’t even seem to have occurred to them (or Alison for that matter) that there are Indigenous autistic people out there who maybe they could learn from.

      2. It Actually Takes a Village*

        Exactly. These things should be Indigenous-led. Well-meaning whiteness can be actively harmful.

  8. Canadian anon*

    Unfortunately, I’m going to have to echo the criticisms of Alison making this an Ask the Readers Question because unfortunately, this is becoming an autism vs Indigenous debate. I certainly hear and appreciate the autistic folks views and suggestions, but this is kind of a severe dog allergy vs service dog situation. Both sides need to be respected, but the things they need might be at odds. In most settings, polite excuses, don’t disclose and send someone else are exactly the right thing to do. This… is not one of those times. Indigenous groups in Canada have been, and continue to be marginalized in a lot of really specific ways and I can almost guarantee that the usual “polite excuse or lie” is going to land wrong and cause harm to the OP’s project and possibly to the group she’s trying to serve

    Again, OP needs to ask her contact. Indigenous folks have autism or sensitivities too. They can almost certainly make suggestions or at least let OP know if some of the suggestions raised above (earplugs, staying at the back of the crowd, taking breaks) are respectful.

    PS. OP, I’ve been to several smudges, but the burning sage gives me a wicked headache. The MC always explains how you should act if you are sensitive to the smoke and don’t wish to participate directly. I can’t imagine there would be less understanding for a pow wow.

  9. It Actually Takes a Village*

    There are TONS of experts in Indigenous community and organization service, program, whatever building. It’s not as niche an area as other questions who have received expert consultation.

    I think the fact that this was pinned as an accommodations question, as opposed to an Indigenous community needs question is part of the general ignorance about Indigenous history, culture and values, as well as the grave historical and current legacy of white settlers centering and obliviousness doing actual harm to our people and communities. Even when well-meaning.

    Having a bunch of white people advise on this, regardless of their actual experience and relationships with Indigenous people’s and communities is likely to miss the mark, and not actually help the letter writer OR the communities they’ve been tasked (side note: who has tasked this organization with the development of these services? Did the community itself ask?). That’s at best. At worst, it can damage the relationship and further harm the Indigenous community.

    Indigenous (Métis) and Autistic person, here.

  10. Beboots*

    Not all Indigenous cultural events are large gatherings! One approach may be to attend a variety of different events. Communities differ, but there are often smaller gatherings or activities. What I would suggest is to continue to approach things from a place of humility, as you have been, and after thanking the contact(s) who suggested this approach to you, ask what kind of upcoming events there may be that you could attend? It’s also not inappropriate to name the problem in some way, and ask what to expect, and what they expect of you. Don’t rely on internet research when it comes to what these events involve! Ask – what’s expected of an outsider? (For instance – when I, a female-presenting person from a settler background, was invited to attend an event, I was asked to wear a long skirt if I could and to not wear a certain colour, which was reserved for elders in that culture.) When does the event begin, and how long do people typically stay? It may be that some events are all-day, or last for a week, but most people typically come and go, or only stay for a few hours for certain pieces. Come to the openings – depending on the group, there are sometimes opening prayers, or it starts on a quieter note that sets good intentions. See if you can attend events that you know your contact is also attending, in part so you can be introduced. For instance, in one of my local communities, yes, they have powwows but they also do language classes, or traditional skills classes, or picnics/feasts that less than 30 people attend. I’ve also been invited to attend a gathering in an outdoor area where the people involved in one sacred society held a long ceremony inside a tipi where outsiders weren’t invited, but everyone (families, more junior members of the society, representatives of my organization) spent time outside chatting in small groups and eating snacks, and were only addressed at the ceremony at the beginning and end when they entered and left the tipi. Quieter, smaller events may also be a good way to develop relationships and have conversations with people on a more individual level.

    Essentially – you can ask, and say you’re not sure what these events involve, and you want to make sure you understand! You wouldn’t be expected to attend each and every event, but try to find some that you think would work. You are right to ask the questions you are, but you are missing the pieces you need to make those decisions, and the best way is to actually talk to your contacts in the actual communities you’re building relationships with. Don’t make assumptions based on the internet.

    This is tough but important work! Stay humble and mindful as you are. :)

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Absolutely. Powwows are not the only way to connect with indigenous culture — they’re flashy and exuberant, which makes them an appealing choice to draw outsiders in … if those outsiders like that kind of thing.

      But joining in on a craft class, or sitting in the back of a town meeting and observing, might be equally meaningful AND give more opportunities to interact with folks one on one rather than as “performers”.

    2. Mbarr*

      I’m indigenous (but didn’t grow up on a reserve, so my opinions may differ from those peeps) and I came here to say the same.

      Sure, go check out a powwow. It’s a unique event… But
      a) Many powwows are attended by the same drummers/dancers (especially competitive powwows), so I don’t think you need to attend a bunch.
      b) Try finding some non-competitive powwows. They tend to have smaller crowds and less action, so it might be less visually stimulating.

      As Beboots stated, find non-powwow activities to attend. For example, in my city, there are several Native Friendship Centres where they offer cultural programming. There are also drumming circles (much smaller/more intimate than powwows. Some organizations offer indigenous story telling circles, 2 spirited LBGT discussion groups, indigenous craft workshops, etc.

      I’d reach out to your contacts for other ideas.

  11. MaureenSmith*

    You mentioned having a main indigenous contact, could you set up a private conversation with them to find out more about the schedule and energetic feel of the pow-wow? At the moment, everyone here is making assumptions about what is involved. (I’m not indigenous)

    1. ALG*

      This is the correct answer. Contact someone within the indigenous community and ask them! Alternatively, is there anyone else on your team who can attend the event in your place?

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Echoing this. “What I understand about pow-wows from my research” and “what this particular event will be” probably have some overlap, but you don’t know for sure what the expectations/duration/limitations will be without having a conversation. You can say you have a medical condition that can make loud, crowded events difficult.

      Emphasize your desire to find a way to be visible and build trust, and talk it through with your contact. Would more discreet earplugs be acceptable? Do you have to stay for the whole thing? Would discreet breaks be okay? Collaborate on a way to meet halfway, and if that won’t work try to brainstorm alternatives. You don’t need to disclose more than “medical condition”.

    3. OverEasy*

      Yes to this. I would also add that you should be thinking about this as how best to get your team involved. Should the whole team be at every event? Do you need to all stay for the entire event? How best can you attend to support the community and best use your team’s time and resources? It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing question, and exploring this with your main contact could give you a lot of options for you and for your team.

    4. goducks*

      Exactly this. If cultural sensitivity is important to you, you need to not make assumptions based on things you read online, but instead you need to ask a person who actually knows this event.

      1. lurkyloo*

        The relationship will be built on respect. Respect for them and their respect for you. And nothing will further your cause more than being authentic and asking for their guidance.
        A fellow government worker in the indigenous forum.

    5. Robin Ellacott*

      That’s my take too. I’m not Indigenous, but given the history of cultural domination by others, you as a guest respectfully asking for guidance would probably strengthen the connection, if anything.

    6. Chickaletta*

      Agree with this. I live in a state with a large indigenous population, and there’s a difference between a large pow-wow and a community feast day which guests also get invited to. The ingenious communities themselves tend to be very quiet and understated, but as I haven’t been to a pow-wow myself perhaps this changes at such events? In any case, research, research, research before you go! And be careful about bringing outside devices like phones to help you until you know more, many of the indigenous communities prohibit photographs for example and pulling out a cell phone during an event could be viewed as a faux paus, if not explicitly forbidden.

    7. TheraputicSarcasm*

      OP did say they can’t deal with parties or going out for a drink with colleagues. Even things like a small county fair that are NBD to most people can be nightmarish for neurodivergents.

  12. I've Escaped Cubicle Land*

    OP I would go to your best contact among the indigenous community and ask them for advice on attending the pow wow. Indigenous communities have autistic members too so chances are they will know someone who uses coping strategies that you can try. Many indigenous communities are more understanding and accepting of the neurodivergent. From my own experience of pow wows, since they are generally outside they tend to not feel as crowded or noisy as say a rodeo or other events. I know the pow wows in my state tend to be smaller than ones in other states though. But I would approach it with someone you feel you can trust with in the indigenous community as “I am really looking forward to this, but I am worried about these triggers from past similar events. I want to make a good impression and enjoy myself. Do you know anyone who has similar struggles and how they coped with it?”

    1. Pillow Forts FTW*

      I came here to say this too. I’m sure the contact knows options or can put you in contact with those in the community who can help.

      And, if not, maybe this is a good start to working together providing a solution for those with sensory issues.

    2. Mrs. Bond*

      My experience with Pow-wows is similar to yours. Outside, and it’s possible to stay on the outskirts of the action (which you probably should do anyway).

      You could also ask them if there are other spaces you could interact with them in their community. In my area there are a couple of drop-in spaces for the indigenous community. Ask for book or movie recommendations. If you’re in Canada make your orange shirt a regular part of your wardrobe.

  13. Canadian Girl*

    Hi OP,

    I am Canadian and work with Indigenous people in the social services realm, here’s hoping some of my insights may be able to help you.

    Would it be possible to wear ear plugs? They are less noticeable than headphones and will dampen the noise stimulation for you. It might be worth trying if you can handle them in your ears (I personally cannot).

    Also, for the fidgeting, can you maybe wear some bracelets and play with them? I do this when I am going to a place that may make me nervous, that way it just seems like I am adjusting the bracelets, and not playing with an actual (identifiable) fidget toy.

    It might also be worthwhile going to your contact person and asking the following:
    “It may be the first-time non-Indigenous folks are coming to cultural events like a pow-wow and may be overwhelmed by it. The first-time attending can be quite an experience for those who may not know what to expect. What is the best way for folks who are attending for the fist time to handle feeling overwhelmed and maybe need a break from the nose & crowds? Is there a specific way this is handled, or should the attendee just excuse themselves for a few minutes?”

    In the end, the Indigenous folks know what is the best way to handle it as they are the expertise on the experience. We need to be willing to listen, learn from, and follow their leads. And by asking them and deferring to their answers shows that you respect their opinion and goes a long way in building trust.

    Good Luck!

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I love the idea of the bracelets for fidgets! Rings or a watch may work as well (That’s what I do sometimes!) In fact we have fidget rings at work. they look like little springs, so it might not be something you would wear the entire time. But you could have it in your pocket and then pop it on your finger.

      Another thought, depending on the weather and climate, is if you can wear long sleeves that cover your hands this way you can pull the sleeves down a bit and fidget with your fingers or your jewelry and be a bit less obvious. Maybe play it off as being chilly or having bad circulation in your hands.

    2. Jayess*

      I just want to add as big a +1 to this comment as possible! There are definitely a lot of context clues that this is a Canadian setting.

      I take Environmental Management Classes and have done a bit of volunteering and supported activism, and what Canadian Girl is saying here sounds closest to what I’ve experienced and been told.

      You know the most about what your context is, but simply asking “what should we be expecting, how can we be respectful,” is probably your best bet. As an overthinker myself, I want to gently suggest you are imagining yourself into a corner. I understand why. Especially those of us who want to do our part to acknowledge colonial privilege and work towards reconciliation, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start and how not to put our foot into it. Asking how to be respectful and what to expect is okay. If you have a main contact, they’re probably very well-versed in education and outreach with settlers like us.

      I don’t know what sort of Powwow experience this will be, but when I got to attend one this last year, it was kind of like a country fair. There were parts that were a bit overwhelming for me, but I also had the opportunity to sit quietly with some master carvers working in the longhouse and ask questions and hear stories. It was very fun and special to attend, and I hope that you’re able to settle your nerves and fears, and get some direct information from your contact that can help you out.

  14. Xavier Desmond*

    Can you speak to your contact on the indigenous community to explain that you struggle at these types of events.

    As you have here, you can emphasise that you recognise the importance of cultural events like this and try to work through a solution together.

    I believe you should be able to do this without disclosing your autism.

    1. Someone*

      Yes! It’s been said elsewhere in the thread, but you can also disclose your symptoms and/or what tends to trigger them (“I have difficulty with loud noises”/”I am typically unable to attend events for longer than [X amount of time]”/) without naming autism or any other condition that causes them. If you have accommodations you’d like to request, do so explicitly (“…so I plan to wear my noise-cancelling headphones – will that seem off?”/”…so can you loop me in on the parts of the powwow that will best help me connect with the community?”), but if not I think you can ask your contact if they have good ideas for how to help or what people in the community with similar issues do to cope. If you feel the need to give a reason, your magic words are “medical reasons” as that will signal more details are none of their business.

  15. elizabeth*

    What I like to do (diagnosed ADHD, exploring possible autism diagnosis) is take multiple breaks and know where I can physically remove myself to decompress, even if it’s just going to my car. I will also show up to part but not all of an event if I know that it’s going to be intense and overstimulating. I also make a game plan for recurring events and try to decide ahead of time which are going to be the most important and those in which my absence may not be noticed. If the event is large and people are milling about, they’re not likely to notice that you took breaks or didn’t attend the whole time. (I have even attended conferences at hotels where I showed up for the first session, stayed in my room til lunch, and then the last session and dinner and no one remarked on it).

    Look into getting hi-fi (high fidelity) earplugs if you can. I wear them to my exercise classes so I can still hear the instructor but the loud music isn’t as bad, and you can get clear ones that are basically unnoticeable. I would also suggest looking into jewelry-type fidgets like rings that you can wear and, at a glance, people may not even notice that you’re fidgeting.

    1. MeepMeep123*

      Bathroom breaks are also very good. Every place has bathrooms and no one is going to raise an eyebrow about someone excusing themselves for a bit.

  16. MachiavellianPrincess*

    Can you try something like Loop Earplugs? They’re a lot subtler than large noise-cancelling headphones and may help dull the noise a bit. It also may be worth looking at a schedule of the day — are there parts where it would be more important for you to be there (i.e. during the Sunrise Ceremony) than at other points.

    1. Jenna*

      Came here to say exactly this. Loop and Eargasm both offer much more subtle options. Additionally, you might want to consider audiologist earplugs – they’re absolutely more expensive, but they’re custom fit to your ears and look a lot more like hearing aids than headphones.

      Additionally, I think there’s room and merit to say, if anyone asks, to say something along the lines of “I have some volume sensitivity issues, but it was really important to me to be here and participate, so my doctor recommended some volume reduction options.”

      The key here is sounding cheerful and matter of fact. Many many many people have volume/crowd sensitivity issues, and it’s not going to be a giant screaming neon sign saying “AUTISTIC PERSON OVER HERE.” I’m not autistic, but I use a variety of headphones for different situations – for instance, I wear my big ass over the ear headphones when I want it to be very clear that I do not want to be bothered. I wear my bright neon orange foam plugs when I’m on a construction site or somewhere I’m likely to lose them, because a: easier to find, b: they’re $4 for 20 of them. And I wear my cute eargasms out to concerts and stuff when I know they’re going to be in all day.

      1. Mayor of Llamatown*

        Exactly. There are lots of people for whom noise and crowds can be overwhelming – people with vision or hearing limitations, people who suffer from migraines, even those with asthma for whom crowded spaces might be a trigger, just to name a few.

      2. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

        I think this is good phrasing. I have severe tinnitus and one of the effects for me is loud noises are physically painful. There are a variety of reasons why someone might have sensitivity to sound.

      3. Beth*

        Agreed that “sound/volume processing/sensitivity issues” is a phrasing that won’t automatically make people think autism. Tons of people have similar things, with all sorts of causes–up to and including “I just am this way”.

        Bringing tools to manage your sound-related needs shows that you’ve not only taken the time to attend the event, but also to maximize your own ability to stay engaged despite some barriers. I think most people will understand and appreciate that.

        You might also be able to ask your contact if they can recommend quieter, smaller events. Showing up to the powwow you’re invited to does sound important, but intentionally seeking out other events is also be a good way to show ongoing commitment and engagement–and that effort will be way more sustainable if it’s not a huge deal for your sensory needs every time.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          This. I’m not autistic, but I can be pretty miserable in loud and crowd situations. I’m an introvert with ADD. I might try earplugs (“my hearing is very sensitive”) and trying for low density times (which is better for seeing people anyway.)

          I’ve been to a couple powwows, and I do tend to leave if the crowd/noise is too much for me. But YMMV.

        2. MM*

          I really think it’s a good idea to discuss this with the contact ahead of time. It doesn’t have to mean using the word “autism” if OP doesn’t want to do that. But part of building the relationship is building trust. So, trust them enough to say “Thank you so much for inviting me to this event and offering me the chance to get to know the community better [or similar]. I have some sensory/audio/processing overstimulation issues that I think might make it difficult for me, but I very much want to be there. My plan was to [use the earplugs or similar] in order to facilitate my engagement and participation. How do you/would the community feel about that?”

          Keeping in mind that this is a community event–there will be families there. There will be kids. Odds are decent that this type of issue will not be totally alien to the tribe. I think it’s better to trust them enough to discuss it up front than it is to have to explain on the spot.

      4. Anna Banana*

        Also want to contribute flare audio’s calmer earplugs! They’re not really earplugs, more like little tubes that help dampen the loud noises but retain softer noises.

        And echoing others, plenty of people wear ear protection for all kinds of reasons – if you’re still meaningfully engaging, I think that’s the important part

      5. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

        This seems like great advice.

        I think you can say plenty to explain earplugs without disclosing any specific disability. People are more conscious these days of how easily hearing can be damaged by too-loud music/events/etc so it’s easy to just say you are trying to protect it, or that you find most sound systems uncomfortably loud, etc.

        I am also a non-autistic person who wears (cheap foam) earplugs at almost every event that has a sound system; even when I used to go to movie theaters. I actually find I hear better that way and it doesn’t give me a headache. Rarely does anyone question it, but “I’m protecting my hearing” or “I find it easier to focus if it’s less loud” is enough explanation for anyone who does.

        Also, I think more people are understanding about issues with crowds since COVID and lockdowns. Makes a decent excuse if you need to step away and get a little air.

        1. coffee*

          Many people wear earplugs to concerts since they cut out echos, letting you hear the songs better without the “muddied” audio from the echos. Hence the hearing better :)

    2. Hawk*

      I am a neurodivergent outreach professional and I love these. I also have bought other kinds — basically any kinds of earplugs meant to reduce, not completely block, noise. I work at many crowded, loud events, and as much as they hurt my brain, I can actually function if I use earplugs.

    3. Buffy will save us*

      I was going to recommend an earplug. I like the wax ones you roll into a ball and smush outside the ear canal as I find the foam ones uncomfortable. In loud situations , it’s not uncommon to see people with earplugs in to dampen the noise.

      As to the crowds, there are a lot of people who don’t like them, my whole family, due to us being very short, hate them. You mention to your contact that you’re not a fan or crowds and is there a way to participate without being in the middle.

    4. Melody Pond*

      Can you try something like Loop Earplugs?

      I was just coming to say exactly this! I myself am autistic and rely on Loop earplugs often in overstimulating, crowded situations. There’s also another brand called Vibes that has a set of High-Fidelity earplugs – they work basically the same as Loop earplugs, but they are almost completely invisible – they’re a translucent plastic, and almost unnoticeable.

    5. SensoryIssues*

      Hugely recommend loop earplugs, and I suggest getting the more expensive “pro” version, because they come with an optional insert that allows you to adjust the amount of volume reduction you have.

      I have pretty massive sensory processing issues, and these earplugs are pretty much the only thing that have allowed me to eat at restaurants/go to bars/be at concerts/ride public transit without getting a migraine within an hour or two. They look pretty unobtrusive, and when I have my hair down you can’t see them at all. I’ve gotten a grand total of one comment on them when my hair was up, and it was someone asking what type of jewelry I was wearing.

  17. Autistic Attorney*

    I am also autistic, but not out at work. When I need to request an accommodation or to explain a sensory support, I find that it is easiest to focus on the specific issue. “Loud sounds are a migraine trigger for me/I am sensitive to sounds, so I will be wearing (headphones/earplugs) at this event” leads to many fewer questions than to try to introduce autism to people. You may also consider whether you could wear something like concert earplugs rather than headphones to be less obvious (I love concert earplugs, but I know some people have sensory issues with them. I actually have sensory issues with over-the-ear headphones) while still reducing reducing volume.

    For unfamiliar social situations, I think you could ask your contact for materials about the event or information on past similar events. It would be easy to pitch that as necessary for your team to familiarize themselves with the event(s) so that they can participate most appropriately and respectfully, while giving you the opportunity to ease your anxiety about what to expect.

    In terms of breaks, consider whether you could excuse yourself to the restroom, to get a snack (they’ll probably be selling refreshments), or to take care of something for another client. Needing to take a quick call or respond to an urgent email (even if you have to arrange it in advance as an excuse) is socially acceptable in my industry.

    1. cleo*

      “I find that it is easiest to focus on the specific issue.”

      This is exactly how I manage my PTSD at work without actually disclosing that I have PTSD.

    2. Tau*

      +1 all this from another autistic person, especially focusing on specific issues and not bringing autism into it. The only thing I’d be cautious about would be whether going to respond to an email or take a call or similar could be seen as disrespectful, given the context LW has mentioned.

      What also helps me is physically going to look at the location where the event will take place ahead of time, so it’s not so unfamiliar. This may unfortunately not be possible to ask your contact without it sounding weird, but maybe you can at least scope out the area.

    3. Curmudgeon in California*

      This. Focus on the actual “trigger” rather than the diagnosis. Lots of people are sensitive to loud and/or crowded environments without any formal diagnosis.

  18. Caramel & Cheddar*

    As others have pointed out, it’s worth asking what the actual event will entail because it may be less high-key than you might expect.

    I think it’s also worth remembering that Indigenous people can be autistic too! And they would have had many of the same questions you currently do in terms of balancing their autism with participating in their community events. Finding out more about that might help inform whatever further decisions you make about your attendance; your contact may have info about this, and failing that there are probably a fair few folks on social media who are talking about their experiences of indigeneity and autism that might have spoken to this very topic. (Be careful of people claiming to speak *for* autistic folks on social media, though, because they’re also abundant.)

  19. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    FINALLY something I can contribute to!!! Pow wow outsider! Pow wows are not like what you think. You can come and watch the Grand Entry and drift off to look at the vendors, get food, go hang out in your car for some quiet, leave and come back an hour later. This isn’t like a symphony or a ballet or something where you are glued to your seat. It is a big community event so there are elders, newborns, other autistic people, and everyone is doing what they need to do to be comfortable for a couple of days. I’ll post some links on pow pow etiquette, but the most important is do what the emcee says

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*


      And look up the specific pow wow you are going to. They post the schedule and rules ahead of time. I recommend being there for Grand Entry (dancers enter and get announced, prayer, daily announcements, color guard) for those community building ties, but you can definitely get up, walk around, wear headphones, whatever it takes, to make it comfortable. The best way to make a good impression is to be a low key white person that everyone forgets about and if that means taking yourself to a quite place to calm down for a minute or an hour do it. I also recommend watching a couple of minutes of each dance type just so you know what someone means when they say they dance that style. Personally love Fancy Dance and Shawl.

      1. Thulcandran*

        Seconding people saying to speak to the person who invited you! An absolutely crucial foundation of building relationships with a community you’re not part of is reciprocity – it’s much better to be up front about your needs, not just because it’ll help you but because that honesty encourages people you’re working with to speak up about theirs. And, though obviously every community is different, I do think “people don’t expect [specific disability/experience] coming from someone with [this background and appearance]” is an experience that a LOT of Native people can empathize with; I’d recommend just telling them that you haven’t disclosed at work for that reason. Just FWIW, I’m non-Native, but have worked a lot around Native communities; I’m a white academic who does language and history work and have helped friends and colleagues with set up and food sales at powwows before.

        While powwows are certainly loud near the dancers, there’s very often spaces you can get to where you can still hear the drums and songs, but there’s less crowding and the sound isn’t so overpowering – if it’s an indoor powwow (though as far as I know those are pretty uncommon after Covid), a LOT of people will step outside for fresh air from time to time, or to grab a bite from a vendor. Even if it’s outdoors, stepping away from the dancers to rest a minute is pretty common at least where I’ve been around – dancers and drummers need breaks to hydrate, catch their breath, etc. I also have sensory issues with loud, crowded, and brightly-lit environments, but I’ve found powwows to be a lot less upsetting than most other experiences – certainly much easier than a dance club or crowded stores around the holidays. Maybe it’s because the drums often reverberate in your chest, which feels grounding – I dunno.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Yep. I’ve also noticed in my area (SW US) audiences and crowds are calmer? quieter? more relaxing? at Tribal run events than ones run off Tribal land with mostly non-Indigenous folks. I have trouble putting it into words what the difference is. I hate crowds in general but crowds at pow wows and Indian Rodeos don’t bother me because people are more considerate or something.

    2. Clisby*

      That has been my experience of pow-wows, too, both in Ohio and Georgia. Obviously, I can’t speak to what events the OP might be invited to, but the pow-wows I attended were pretty spread out – it wasn’t like an outdoor concert.

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        Yep, like Still Anon said they are way more county fair than anything else. Usually there are multiple activities spread out and people all camping around the grounds doing their own thing, so the LW wandering off for some quiet time somewhere is going to be really normal.

        Oh and LW, during social dancing you are allowed to dance if you feel like it but no one expects you do do it unless you are feeling it. If someone invites you, it is politeness to let you know you are welcome and it is absolutely OK to say, “Nah, I’m just going to relax right here/go to get X to eat/drink”.

  20. Anon Anon*

    As someone who is autistic and does a lot of work in this space, here’s a suggestion for how to frame any access requests when talking to your contact:

    “Thank you so much for the invitation, I’m deeply honored! Since I’m new to the event, can you let me know what happens? Is there an itinerary/schedule?

    I also want to make sure my team is as respectful as possible, and I’d love to know more about behavioral and cultural norms. I will do some research online with indigenous creators & cultural workers who share this kind of information (although if you have any you’d recommend I follow, suggestions are most welcome!). Is there anything you want us to know in advance, or any resources where we can find the information (this is where it is good to provide some examples and see if that’s okay, prove you’re doing the work to educate yourself and your team; there may be an outreach coordinator or someone else with the tribe who already has this available online, in which case you start there!).

    Lastly, because we want to take in as much of the day as possible but also be fully present in the moment, my team and I may need to occasionally take breaks, only attend certain portions, and find time to reflect quietly. Is that okay? I may also want to wear ear protection simply because I have sensitive hearing, and I find I can enjoy live music and events longer that way.

    Thank you again for the generous invitation! I am very much looking forward to it and our continued partnership”

    – it is normal to wear ear protection at music festival and large gatherings
    – it is normal to step away, people usually have a lot they are thinking about besides you
    – it is normal to be anxious about something new and to want to take it all in
    – as an autistic person, I know from personal experience that this is all magnified! And it feels like an even bigger deal when you are forced to hide parts of yourself and pretend BUT people don’t notice as much as you think, there will be many neurodivergent people there of all kinds, and no one expects you to know all of the rules when you attend a cultural celebration for a community you’re just getting to know!

    There are also a lot of indigenous autistics. You can look around social media and probably find them! Indigenous creators have a lot of videos, so you can check them out in advance to get a sense of what to expect.

    In some ways, this may be a very liberating experience for you! If you feel like you have to his being an outsider all the time, now you’re walking into a situation where everyone knows you are an outsider!

    People usually enjoy questions about their culture when they come from a place of respect, but doing research first (YouTube and tiktok are great for this) can also help. If you know anyone from outside the tribe who has a good relationship with the community, they could be an excellent resource for questions about expectations, norms, etc.

    Lastly: you don’t have to apologize or justify not being openly autistic at work. Ableism is real, it sounds like you have experienced more than your fair share, and you don’t owe anyone that deeply personal information about yourself. When the time is right to share, you’ll know, and definitely reach out to other autistic folks who can support you through that! The Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network is a great place to start.

    I hope you have a great time!

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Yep. In my experience, Tribal events are some of the more inclusive we have in the US. Not perfect, but it is so important to the organizers they do everything in their power and within their means to accommodate the community – everyone in the community.

    2. nnn*

      That’s what I was thinking – Indigenous autistic people exist, there’s almost certainly an established way to address this problem, even if it’s just “Step away for a moment if you need to.”

      Also, asking about it from the point of view of an established practice is (in a very small way) respectful of the fact that the Indigenous community is a functional community that already knows how to meet basic human needs, in line with what you mentioned about humility and coming in as guests rather than experts.

  21. KatKatKatKat*

    Hi OP! I was in a similar situation to yours several years ago – I’m a white cisgender female and began working exclusively with tribal leaders and tribal governments on tribal economic development matters. I was nervous because I had no history working with tribes, but I worked on bettering my relationships with my tribal counterparts through meetings and meals – I would visit their reservations for meetings to discuss our projects and we would go to lunch or dinner after. I never went to a Pow Wow in the 3.5 years I was in that job, but I was able to develop good working relationships through other means. You can also go to the reservation and spend the weekend there before or after the Pow Wow – stay at their hotel, if they have one, dine at their restaurants, explore what activities they have to offer! Pow Wows are just one way to connect – but that’s just one weekend out of the year – there are 51 other weeks and weekends where you can find ways to connect! In-person visits, small group meals and meetings are my recommendation :) :)

  22. Bossy Magoo*

    Also came here to suggest this. You don’t even need to use the word “autistic” and the assumptions that come with that, maybe just explain you have some sensory sensitivities and get overwhelmed at too much noise/crowds. That you want to be respectful and do they have any suggestions as to what would be the best way to handle this at the powwow?

    1. Rex Libris*

      Yep, you don’t have to get into the why. I have severe tinnitus, and can’t do loud music or loud crowds except in small doses with hearing protection. It’s not an uncommon problem for a variety of reasons.

  23. Willow Pillow*

    There’s a PhD researcher in Alberta named Grant Bruno who is studying autism in First Nations communities. I’ve heard him speak and I really appreciated his perspective as a fellow Autistic – he’s on Linkedin, it might be worth messaging him?

    I’d also like to gently suggest the phrasing “low support needs” instead of “high functioning”. I know functioning labels are common, however they are often used to deny people of support or autonomy. It can be a gross oversimpification, such as whether someone is speaking. “Functioning” also isn’t a static thing!

    1. Métis*

      I thought about Grant’s work too but I would think carefully about how to request his labour and expertise—it may be appropriate to offer protocol and a gift, for example.

  24. PlainJane*

    My thoughts are there as well. “I’m very honored and happy to be invited to the powwow, but I may need to take a break from crowds now and then… is there a way to do that while minimizing any offense given?” Or even, “Are there some quiet areas where people go to recharge?” I doubt you’ll find that everyone there is a loud extravert! Maybe there’s a quiet place where people get together to talk in an atmosphere where they can hear each other. Maybe there’s a place to buy food and just spend a little while quietly reading while you eat. These are huge events that draw thousands of people; surely some of them want to be able to take a break from the heavy activity, and your contact may be able to help with it. You may even find yourself in small groups, where you can talk to people one on one about your services.

    Be honest with yourself about how much crowd time you’ll be able to handle so that you don’t suddenly find yourself overwhelmed and needing to make a hasty exit. Is it possible for you to watch dances for forty minutes, or, say, do three dances and then move on to another activity?

  25. Kella*

    I’ve noticed in my anti-racism work that white people frequently treat situations like this as if they should already know all of the do’s and don’ts even though they don’t, and they try to fake their way through it, or like it’s a test and they need to find out if they passed.

    I would try to let go of that framework. Yes, you want to defer to the knowledge of your contact and their community about how this should be handled but it really is okay to ask questions and enter into a discussion about how you can participate and both offer respect and take care of yourself.

    I also want to echo what others have said that there is a very good chance their community already has practices in place for people who have sensory issues or need space for some other reason. Indigenous people are not immune to these needs. I’m not familiar with how indigenous cultures tend to interface with different forms of disability but I would go into this trying not to assume that they will deal with it the same way your employers have.

  26. Podkayne*

    If you’ve never been to a pow wow before, please go to YouTube and watch a number of pow wows so that you can get a realistic idea of what to expect both at pow wows that are indoors and outdoors and also depending if the pow wow is a mostly indigenous audience event or if it is a large open-to-all public event. I’ve been to pow wows that are kind of small and intimate and I’ve also been to powwows that are enormous tourist attractions. Each has a very different vibe.
    Please avoid using the word “noise,” as that has only a negative connotation, albeit unintended.
    It’s possible, depending on the venue, to sit pretty far away from the main event and thus protect yourself from the overstimulation to some extent.
    Also, you will likely find that there is a schedule of events at a pow wow that you can view online in advance. There are certain events in a pow wow that are more reflective and introspective than others, where quiet from the audience is the norm. You might look at the schedule and chose your arrival and departure accordingly. Or when to take a quiet break in your car in the parking lot. A good example of a solemn dance is the gourd dance, which is not silent, but which demands quiet respect from the audience.

  27. Shanderson*

    I am cosmically prepared for this question! I’m a comms officer for an (Indigenous) Marketing & Events firm, and our clients are predominantly Indigenous non-profits and Communities in a northern and largely remote catchment (like, some winter road/fly in type stuff). If you are comfortable, tell your community liaison about that, because in my experience FN folks are very understanding of neurodivergence and other accommodations. You can also ask if there are other trust building activities that may be gentler for you – they may instead offer a sweat, a circle talk with community stakeholders and leadership, or one on one introductions and conversations with Elders & leadership (expect tea, maybe fry bread if you’re lucky, I don’t know where you’re located). Word of mouth and personal impressions can be weighed very heavily in this demographic, especially in remote/rural areas. Someone warm and genuine one on one or in small groups will be a much better impression that spreads fast than someone looking deeply tense and uncomfortable at the pow-wow (even when it’s not for the reason a person might assume). This may not be the type of program you’re developing, but in terms of relationship-building if you are expecting a community to trust you with their history or trauma or anything like that, it would be an appropriate first step to assume you can trust them with your vulnerability when they seem to be intent on welcoming you as a guest. I wouldn’t normally just advocate for someone to disclose something like this in an ordinary business to business situation, but you are in a different space – I think it’s a great one though, and I hope you learn a lot from it. Best of luck!

  28. Anon 1*

    Want to add another advantage of speaking to your contact – it’s not going to be the only time a issue comes up between you / your orgs needs and the communities needs. This could be a great chance to set a collaborative tone for problem solving moving forward and be a bit vulnerable (you don’t have to disclose your autistic – loud noises/crowds being overwhelming is a pretty commen thing !)

  29. Picky*

    Came here to say this. I am the Indigenization lead in my organization (also Canadian, as I can tell from your letter, OP). There are absolutely autistic Indigenous people and their communities have developed culturally sensitive ways of helping them stay involved. Just ask. “I am unable to be in crowds or loud spaces due to a health condition. How can I participate?” Tell them what you do in other situations… they will tell you if headphones are just fine, regular breaks are okay, etc.

    Also, you may not be ready to be completely out at work… that is a personal decision and one which only you can gauge… but I will tell you that my work with Indigenous knowledge-keepers has led me to understand that I can’t live in a world where I’m not acknowledged for who I am. I have started being open about things I never thought I would say out loud at work. You may find this work gives you new insights into how you want to be as an autistic person. Raising my hands to you.

  30. tamarack and fireweed*


    Building a relationship with an indigenous community you are developing a program for implies creating genuine trust and transparency in how you act. It’s not something you can be off-hand about if your partners don’t understand what’s going on and wonder if you’re being rude. On the other hand, if this is like any other North American indigenous community I’ve ever known, you won’t be the only person there who has, for lack of a better term, special needs. There will be elders with impairments and there surely will be children about.

    I don’t think you need to disclose your exact diagnosis, but if you meet with your counterpart one-on-one, ideally in person, thank them for the generous invitation, and then say you’re thinking about how to best make this happen, and that you personally on the one hand believe it’s important for you to be there but on the other have a medical (neurological? … find a description) condition that leads to [whatever it is … getting overwhelmed in a noisy environment? whatever’s most salient]. So you wonder how to best make it happen. Then listen for what they come back with, and think creatively – can you had the reins for the meeting to a deputy, be there, but retreat to a calm outer edge after introductions? (with your partners knowing it’s a medical thing)

    If you’re honest and to a degree vulnerable chances are best that you come out with a strong relationship.

  31. iglwif*

    This is what I came to recommend. It’s unlikely that they want you to be uncomfortable at an event that they are hosting and welcoming you to! It’s also quite likely they have had this type of request before within their community.

    And you don’t have to say “I’m autistic”, you can say you are sensitive to noise or have trouble with crowds or anything that’s about what you need in order to participate safely. It’s genuinely no different from a wheelchair user asking about ramps vs stairs or from a blind person asking about bringing their guide dog … just less visible.

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