On My Third Visit to Autreat


... by Stan (s0)

Diesel and Cheesesteaks

2007 was my third year at Autreat, held that year at the Ambler Campus of Temple University. (We have since moved to a new venue.) I met Paula who drove up from 2 hours away with xyr child. I was planning to bring a "Q" grille, which I would have shared with Joel, but it turned out the "Q" was too big for the VW Golf filled with 3 people with a week's worth of clothes. I did have room for an old "Carry Cool" airconditioner -- the Temple Ambler dorms were unairconditioned and Philadelphia at the end of June is hot and humid.

2000 vw golf The trip up was routine enough. We stopped at one of the I-95 rest stops between Baltimore and Wilmington for a brief rest, and I continued up to Ambler. I used to live in the area, so I basically ignored the driving directions and "just drove there".

Ambler is a small bedroom community built around the Reading commuter train line at the turn of the 20th Century, and was the site of The Great Train Wreck. It still had the small town character of Northeast bedroom communities built around train stations. We were a bit early because a planned car inspection for my car could not be scheduled, and so we stopped at a local steak joint after buying groceries at the local Acme supermarket. After cheesesteaks, we headed to the campus.

Ambler train station

"It should be past the next major road."
    ("Major road" in that part of the Phila. suburbs means a road with a yellow divider stripe.)
"I have the directions here."
"No, we're okay. I've been here before." (How do you explain that this nondescript road is really the right direction?).

WHY??? Am I Here?

We drove in to the location of Autreat. Temple Ambler was originally a horticulture school, and still has horticulture as a major part of their curriculum. The beginning of the campus road was lined with cherry trees, and some gardens were near the entrance. We drove on to the dorm, where I pulled into the drive to unload the car.

This was my third year, but each time I get there, I have a few second thoughts, perhaps feeling like I've become one of Jerry's Kids (after a disabilities "pity" promotion in the US). "Why am I here?" As with the first two years, the second thoughts disappeared shortly after arriving. It's perhaps a bit of an explanation of Autreat.

There's a reason for this "What am I doing here?" feeling. Most of the year, I'm living in the NT (neurotypical) world. As such, I'm used to, as Liane Holliday Willey says, "pretending to be normal". Now (at Autreat; not at present!) I'm among my own element. It feels different because it is different -- it's supposed to feel different.

Welcome to Autistic space.

As I told several people, "if you join in, other people will think you're weird. That's a good thing!"

Since this was my third year there were people I knew from before, and had either knew fairly well, or who were just barely familiar. I thought of my first Autreat.

That first time, I had no idea what was in store. I walked in past a few people milling around, to the registration tables. The registration tables were obvious -- they were the only large folding tables with a bunch of registration stuff. No highly orchestrated procedure; yet enough organisation to allow people to sign in, get their materials and keys and linens and room assignments. "Here's everything you need. Enjoy." The participants found out about dinner by either looking at the materials or asking someone, or perhaps by observation -- their choice.

Autreat wasn't deliberately scripted this way. Or maybe it was. Autreat is a conference/retreat run by autistics for autistics. There were efforts made to provide just about everything the participants would need, but no efforts made to make it "scripted". I was made to feel welcome because I was welcome; not because of the (nonexistent) greeter. It is what a planned four and a half day event would be like if autistics planned it.

Your Room, Sir.

The Autreat tee-shirt that says "Organising Autistics is like herding cats" has an element of truth to it, especially considering that the Autistics are also doing the herding. Essentially, we are here because we want to be here. This takes no self-determination or pep talk; it's just an environment -- our environment. When looking at potential venues, I described "Autreat space". Autreat is a place where we are among our own, with all our differences. We live and function in our own space and in our own time and place.

Normally, when one arrives, there is a relaxed, slightly disorganised registration. People are logged in, assigned rooms, given the event pamphlet and coloured Interaction Badges. Most of the time they're wandering about, watching people. Meeting people. This isn't a new concept to me because I need to do this at work, but it is novel that the "meeting people" part is so easy and comfortable. (Welcome to Autistic space.) To use the popular web cliche, I am on my own planet.

I say "normally" because I was responsible for a substantial amount of the coordination for presenters and transportation. Temple Ambler's cellular phone service was better than that of Kapkatash, Kyrgyzstan, but not by much. One of the issues we had that year was that we had no landline connection into the dorms. The normally relaxed first afternoon was filled with arranging to meet people at the SEPTA station (trains every 20 minutes) and wondering where some participants from Japan were. About the only thing that made things easier was that I already knew when the presenters would arrive because I had helped make the arrangements. So when someone called to describe a late arrival, I already knew how that would fit in with the program and could tell Sola to have a room ready.

As I mentioned, the first few minutes -- maybe 15 minutes or 1/2 hour -- is spent wondering why I'm here with these strange people. "And then I join the others; I am the others." (Dar Williams As cool as I Am)

Being assigned a roommate (since I hadn't selected someone) was a source of some apprehension. In each of the three years, I enjoyed the company of my roommates. This is really only 4 nights, so there really isn't a compatibility issue. My roommate this year, whom I'll call "George" seemed to be somewhat distant. That was for about 30 seconds. It turned out George and I had a lot in common. It turned out he was an industrial engineer -- a profession related to my own work.

The bed linens were typical linen service quality, which was sufficient. (Reminder to self: go to a discount store and buy a cheap set of cotton sheets ¹

Part of registration is a room questionnaire. (Actually this is normally completed a few weeks prior to Autreat.) The seemingly haphazard room assignments in the previous 2 years were surprisingly efficient, and this year also turned out very well. I was given the room assignment by Sola and the dormitory staff handed me a key attached to a lanyard, and handed me linens.

The dorms at Temple Ambler were unairconditioned and Phila. can be quite hot and humid in the summer. There were a number of conflicting venue rules regarding airconditioners, which variously stated they were unavailable without documented medical need, they could be rented, they could be brought or rented, etc. I also knew that an airconditioner would be unnoticed (in part because there was a random assortment in the building presumably used by staff), and I happened to have a couple of old Carry Cools. (We have since decided that availability of airconditioned rooms, even in cooler climates, would be a venue selection criterion.)

I loaded a trolley with my items (airconditioner underneath) and moved in. Removed items from trolley, placed airconditioner in window, duct taped some exposed side vents to the airconditioner and turned it on. Later on:

"How much did it cost you to get the airconditioner?"
"I didn't cost me anything. I found it on the street."
By the time I settled in, I was able to meet a few people I knew from past years, and go across the driveway for dinner in the cafeteria.

Temple Ambler's dorms were set up in traditional "dormitory style" semi-private rooms. "Dormitory style" dorms have common bathroom/shower facility "at the end of the hall". Shared bathrooms brings to mind the idea of a public restroom (loo) with a shower; however for the most part, this is not the case. Dorms are set up with the idea that a group of students live there for their academic year, and therefore wish to be comfortable in their morning activities. The arrangement is that of a row of wash sinks, some open lockers, and a shower area. The shower area has some benches and room to place clothing. Since this is a residence hall, each shower stall is separated by a barrier. What all this means is that toiletries are typically carried in, and most people wear bath slippers.

The things that aren't done are leaving items on the sinks for long periods of time, and one would probably not want to walk out of the shower area to use the sinks completely naked. The toilets are of course in a separated corridor, so one is not aware of these when using the sink or shower. These are shared but are typically not in the same part of the room as the sinks and showers.

All in all, this is a quite comfortable environment. Autreat arranges to have same-gender bathrooms for those likely to desire this. (It is likely that current venues will include at least some dorms with semi-private baths, both because dorms have been built that way for the past 40 years, and because some people have expressed a desire for this.)

In general the atmosphere the first afternoon and evening is fairly relaxed, and this was true despite the fact that I was still involved with some of the transportation coordination.

A Room Full of Comfy Chairs

The presentations were held in Bright Hall, in a fairly roomy space with dormitory couches and loungechairs.

autreat presentation room

This photo is a bit deceptive in that the room extends back by at least 3 of these windows, plus an entrance foyer open to the room. Most of the presentations were given from space in front of the stage, in what in the photo appears occupied by the first two rows of couches. The relaxed environment was essential to the format of the 100 minute-long lectures.

I enjoyed the lectures and attended most of them (even those related to child care), and was usually not bored. (It's okay to do self-distracting activities such as read.) The lectures are on a variety of subjects, and some of them are on the cutting-edge of approaching autism from a self-advocacy point of view. (Random examples are Ráchael Jones' SAA RED approach to communication Phil Schwarz' Allies and some of Jim Sinclair's lectures. There are quite a few more, which can be found on the ANI website.)

There are those who go to few and presumably none of the lectures. Autreat is more of a retreat than a conference, at least in its structure.

In general, there is no rigid schedule to adhere to. If one wants to attend the lectures (I did), then it helps to be there at those times. One can show up late, and it isn't as if one is being disruptive. A slight amount of care is required, much as for walking in late to a religious service in a congregation where most people come and go at random intervals.

The room itself... Part of the selection of the venues for Autreat is the selection of a presentation hall. ANI looks for some combination of natural light and acceptable artificial lighting. The room must be comfortable enough for a group of autistics to attend the 100 minute lectures. A standard lecture auditorium with hard backed desk arm chairs may work for Organic Chemistry 208 but not for Autreat. Did I mention, "Welcome to Autistic space"?

We definitely check out the room and seating for comfort when selecting a venue. In 2008 we probably will not have sofas (but will ask, because there are sofas nearby), but the standard seating consist of a sort of high tech pivoting chair. The chairs can be moved about the room.


Autreat is functionally a four and a half day conference, but in form it is a retreat. I'm fairly certain there are participants who really don't go to the lectures; they just enjoy the environment.

The meal times are set up so as to avoid a rigid schedule, and are typically 1 1/2 hours long (for food service; It's possible to stay on after the buffet closes). The food is vegan, because Jim, who orders the food does not want to actively participate in obtaining animal products. The rest of us would rather let Jim do it, in part because the four days of vegan food is somewhat appealing and in part because nobody feels strongly enough to want to take over that particular function. My personal take is that it is more important to have quality ingredients.

We also attempt to have GF food available (vegan is already casein-free), include some un-mixed foods, and generally provide information suitable for individual diets.

A strange thing, which seems to occur throughout Autreat, is the socialization. Since everyone is more-or-less in the same situation, there is a tendency for groups to gather at lunch. The fine details of social interaction common in the NT world are deemed as necessary as knowing to stop eating when the Queen is finished her meal. We simply join each other because we know who we are and that's enough. "Hi" does occur with surprising frequency, but on an Autistic level. (It's like living with a dog -- you greet your dog, but you don't do so the same way dogs greet each other, and yet the dog appreciates being greeted.)

This occurs throughout Autreat. If Phil Schwarz is having one of his "We're going to change the world" evening discussions, people just wander in and talk.

There are other, slightly more organised activities. The pool seems to attract a minority of participants, and the pool hours are of course important; otherwise you don't get to swim. There are small groups that decide to walk somewhere. "Somewhere" at Ambler was the pathways set up by Temple's horticulture school. Elsewhere it would be a path or perhaps town.

There's usually at least one entertainment event. In 2005 there was a folk singer. 2007 had African drum and dance lessons. 2006 had neither. Instead we had the Raventones there. The Raventones are T.R. Kelley's Autistic two person indy-blues-rock band.

As with any retreat, the list of activities don't look like they would keep people occupied, but it turns out that people do become occupied.

4 1/2 Days and it's over.

The experience of being with Autistics, as I said "in Autistic space", and learning about us is something that doesn't disappear after 4 1/2 days. It's there and part of all of us.

Now, we're looking for the next venue. Perhaps a bit more difficult for me to manage from a travel standpoint without Philadelphia's SEPTA Rail. Regardless of the ease of transportation, we expect to continue Autreat as something that is (excuse the trite expression) a special place in time, at least for us.

Meanwhile, I had to get back early enough that Paula could continue on to make it home at a reasonable hour.

> We got home at around 10:30, I think. Maybe
> it was some other time of the day, I am not sure.
> I spent Saturday trying to keep my eyes open.
> Around midnight I perked up and wished I was at
> Autreat with all the other people who like to
> stay up until 2 am!


1. The sheets provided are suitable, but if you don't mind the extra luggage, you can bring your own sheets (e.g., cotton). For the time being (2008-10), there is no linen fee. If there are fees in the future cost of linen rental would be about $25, so you can almost justify the cost.

Most dormitories in co-ed universities use "long twin" mattresses, which are single mattresses modified to be 80" (203 cm) long (same as  king ).  Full  fitted sheets should fit this size, as do "twin" "full" and "queen" flat sheets. If buying, my recommendation is:

The extra sheet and pillowcase make good substitutes for a mattress pad and pillowcase liner. Obviously if you have extra linens lying around, you can use these.

Some venues (which use outside linen services) only provide pillows with rented linens, so unless you read otherwise, if you bring your own linens, you'll have to include a pillow.

I personally had just rented the linens because I didn't want to bother with my own, but I am resizing a set of my old sheets to bring with me this year. A set of cotton sheets are a cheap luxury.

copyright 2007, s0