Rachelissan
8 min readJul 7, 2022

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When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me I experienced the world as intensely as the world experienced me. He was being partly facetious, raising a daughter who had a lot of feelings, partly truthful, raising a daughter who asked him at age 7 to ask the teachers if she could sit on the perimeters of classrooms to avoid having to socially perform. I was passed off as a shy and sensitive kid, who turned in to a reserved and sensitive adult who went 30 years with undiagnosed autism. The intensity by which I experience the world as an autistic person hasn’t made socializing, particularly in the professional context, easy or pleasant. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

I attended Cannes Lions this year as a speaker across multiple stages, including an official Cannes stage. It was a true privilege and career honor to share my ideas and expertise on one of the biggest stages for creativity. Importantly, it gave me the opportunity to reevaluate how I show up at industry events as an autistic person to not just survive but thrive as my colleagues do.

From CES to SXSW to Cannes as a Young Lion in 2017, I’ve been lucky enough to be a speaker and delegate at some of the biggest media and tech industry events in the world. Up until this year, I’ve left events in various states of being in non-speaking shutdowns — a mental break for autistic people that is deeply painful, dissociative and is a trauma response to overstimulation/over socializing. Some lasted a few hours. Some lasted days. Some might find it strange that I’m a storyteller and public speaker who responds to highly stimulating events in such a negative way to the point that I stop speaking altogether. I think it’s more telling of our industry’s lack of neuroinclusivity at major, career-advancing events being so rooted in socializing in very stimulating environments.

We belong at these events — but we belong differently.

Leaving Cannes Lions in 2022, I’m healthy and energized, a wildly different feeling than what I’m used to. I’ve stopped gaslighting myself in to thinking I don’t have access needs (I do) and that there’s something wrong with me (there’s not) if I only just push through it (girl… no.)

I’m still learning about my access and support needs, but planning my Cannes this year has given me rich insight in to how neurodivergent people can create more emotionally safe experiences for themselves while advancing their career. I also have ideas on what leaders should know to ensure more autistic and neurodivergent voices are included at events like Cannes Lions. And for a festival that is all about creativity, the industry should be clamoring to have us there as top talent because to be neurodivergent means we fundamentally think differently.

And a quick caveat before we begin — I’m writing this from an immense place of privilege as an employed autistic person in a high earning industry . Nearly 80% of autistic people are unemployed. While the barriers I’ll dive in to here are specific to major events like Lions, it shouldn’t be hard to see the pervasive and systemic issues in media/marketing/tech that keep autistic and other neurodivergent people from staying employed in an industry that would be lucky to have them if given the right accommodations.

Sensory-controlled spaces
Cannes Lions can be a sensory nightmare and sensory sensitivities are a key trigger for me for meltdowns. There’s no escaping people and thus no escaping talking. It’s hot as hell. Worst of all is the constant exposure to loud and layered sounds, which is extremely painful for me.

It’s imperative to have a centrally-located space that is devoid of stimulating experiences. It needs to be quiet, out of a high traffic area but walkable to key locations. It needs to give the neurodivergent person autonomy over their environment. All of us have different sensory needs so identifying what your biggest triggers are and asking your leadership to accommodate those needs with very specific asks is imperative. My boss knew I get overstimulated and offered a space I could use proactively. If you have a relationship with your boss where you feel safe doing so, make sure they know your needs. Good leaders will listen and empathize with your needs as valid — because they are. Great leaders will be thoughtful enough to anticipate accommodations once they know your needs.

Sensory tools
That said, you should also bring sensory tools for when you can’t control your environment . Sound and heat are my biggest sensory sensitivities. I carried my Seinheser Noise Canceling Headphones with me everywhere and listened to a Brown Noise playlist to drown out everything around me when I was alone or in transit. My large headphones signal to others that I’m not available to speak and avoids extra socializing which I can’t always afford to do.

If you’re not autistic and reading this: I promise we’re not being rude when doing this. It’s an act of self preservation. Recognizing sensory and social boundaries as valid are one simple way you can be more inclusive to us.

Rachel is wearing a checkered dress sitting on a couch wearing over the ear headphones

My Ear Loops also came with me to all social engagements — they flatten sounds to be less sharp and drown out ambient noise. Many dinners and meetings were made decently accessible just by wearing them because I had less audible inputs.

People will ask why you’re using a sensory tool — I had a couple people ask why I was wearing what they mistook as AirPods during dinner. I simply said that I’m sensitive to sound and they’re an adaptive tool for my disability. Luckily everyone was super understanding but evaluate sharing based on psychological safety and potential ableism.

Oh and if you want to look like an absolute diva (yes plz) if you’re triggered by extreme temperatures, this electronic hand fan literally saved my life✨

Design for energy not for expectations
I meticulously planned my schedule around my sense of self, which has become much stronger, clearer and purposeful since I was diagnosed. I know exactly what I like, what I don’t, what I’m good at, and what I’m entirely mediocre at since finding out I’m autistic.

Previously at industry events I would follow the lead of my colleagues on what we were “supposed to do” which left me mentally unwell. Because of this, at Lions I deprioritized meetings and networking. I put my energy in to speaking opportunities where I knew I would professionally thrive.

Rachel is sitting on a stage in a yellow and pink dress speaking with a microphone in her hand. Behind her is a screen that reads “The Patriarchal (and very white) Platform Age”

I love speaking on stages. Especially giving speeches to big rooms. Throw me on a stage and let me talk about my work and I’m filled with energy. If you’re scratching your head at how an introverted autistic gets energy from public speaking:

  1. Public speaking requires very little person-to-person interactions filled with social hierarchies and complexities that I don’t understand. Because of this, conversations with strangers, acquaintances or otherwise usually result in me feebly guessing at if what I’m saying in a conversation is weird, blunt or rude, of which I’ve frequently been called all 3 often to my surprise and confusion. Stages allow me to share my ideas and creativity on my own terms.
  2. I’ve been performing my entire life with a neurotypical mask and painful as it was to get here, I’m damn good at acting and storytelling which is all public speaking is.

Conversely, I’m drained by meetings at these events, especially ones I have to take on my own. They require me to mask heavily to the point where I have scripts to get through them. I have to make painful eye contact with people I don’t know. I also process information slower than most — so I don’t actually find meeting IRL very valuable because I need time to work through what you’re telling me before I can give you any thoughtful ideas. If I do have to take a meeting, I’m much more comfortable when someone else who I know/trust can join to help carry the conversation.

Alternatively, I prioritize meeting with people who I have an established relationship with that I can build deeper relationships with. Even better if they work in inclusive media/tech — my job but also my autistic special interest so I can talk about it for hours.

Anchor People
Finally, at Cannes and events like it, autistic people need what I call anchor people. Having colleagues or industry friends who you trust will not judge you and be an emotional anchor to carry conversations, give you grace to be reserved, and even predict your support needs (if you’re really lucky) is vital.

Honestly, being surrounded by anchor people is what made my Cannes Lions this year so rewarding. I work with such empathetic people that I felt accepted and like I belonged as my (still learning to unmask) autistic self rather than like I needed to perform as I historically have done.

Creating neuroinclusive events for leaders to thrive at is obviously just one very privileged need for the autistic community. With only 20% of us employed, the media and ad industry changing events and culture alike is a necessity to bring more neurodivergent talent in to the industry to thrive. I credit my success in part to being surrounded by people who care about accessibility not just in principle, but in action. It made it a lot easier to come out two years ago and it made my Cannes Lions an incredible experience.

I’ve only met a small handful of autistic people in our industry (most of whom aren’t out). Perhaps next year at Cannes Lions, there will be enough of us that neuroinclusivity and the immense creativity many autistic people have will get its own stage at the Palais.

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