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The nightclub designed for adults with autism

Adult autism diagnoses are on the rise - and nightlife is finally catching up, offering more sensory options for neurodivergent adults.

March 17 2023, 14.49pm

It’s 12.45am on a Friday and the club is jumping. But are you? The lights are too fast. The music is so loud you can’t taste your drink. The bodies around you stick with heat and there’s no sign of escape. The average Friday night for many neurodivergent adults. This sensory overload can be a deal-breaker, but what is your other option? Stay home? Do nothing? 

According to a 2022 study, the number of autism diagnosis in the UK has risen from 3,072 per year in 1998 to 65,665 per year in 2018. Since 2015, the largest rise has been in autistic adults over any other age group.  

Across the UK, a growing wave of sensory-friendly entertainment is helping remedy this problem. Autism friendly events aren’t a brand-new concept. The Lion King was the first West  End show to offer autism friendly performances in 2013, and major cinema chains Odeon and Cineworld have been offering sensory friendly screenings since 2011. The films they offer for these screenings have one fatal flaw – they have a maximum age rating of 12. This is a great advancement for children and families, but what about those who want something a little more adult? 

In a new study published by Routledge, Chloe Farahar says autistic spaces for adults and teens are important for more than just a good night out. They’re a way of reclaiming a person’s “autistic-ness” and battling the infantilising experience of being an autistic adult. She says this infantilisation starts with the diagnosis of autism (the questions asked, the tasks given etc.), but with the past lack of autism friendly entertainment for adults, this treatment is apparent beyond the point of  diagnosis. 

“So much of queer culture is rooted in nightlife. I do feel like because I know I will be uncomfortable, I miss out on a lot of the queer scene” 

AJ Turnbull-Wise is a 22-year-old theatre student and West End box office worker, she is also autistic. She has seen this in full swing from both sides of the curtain. “Relaxed performances aren’t for me. They’re aimed at a much younger audience - I don’t want to walk into a theatre and be handed a colouring book”. The infantilisation of autistic adults does more than just render current safe spaces too childish for many. It also hinders the introduction of effective accessibility features into adult spaces. Measures such as effective disability training for staff and areas to take breaks from the action can be easily implemented. It’s far less likely this will happen when the presence of autistic adults is overlooked. 

For AJ, this means she must choose between sacrificing her comfort or missing out. But it’s not just a night out she misses out on. As a queer person, AJ says this aspect of her identity is also impacted by the inaccessibilty of going-out culture. “So much of queer culture is rooted in nightlife. I do feel like because I know I will be uncomfortable, I miss out on a lot of the queer scene.” 

Rising to combat this is Dalston Superstore; one of the many venues injecting life into autism friendly spaces. Their club night ‘Spectrum’ is a “hub for neuro-queer excellence”. It runs once every two months and its founders, Maze and Meshi, work to bring an electric energy into a welcoming safe space. It started with their love for nightlife and frustration at the widespread inaccessibility.

(Credit: Dalston Superstore)


After moving to London and working in neurodivergent friendly spaces, Meshi soon realised how liberating existing in these spaces can be. Naturally, this was followed by the realisation that traditional spaces don’t have to be built solely for able bodies. For them, a turning point was losing their job in 2021 due to epilepsy. They say “I started getting really angry that places weren’t accommodating me,” says Meshi, “I do deserve to have a job, to go clubbing, to enjoy spaces. I think it’s a bit fucking ridiculous that places don’t even want to try but want to use neurodiversity to sell more tickets.” Clubs will offer some facilities to accommodate people with sensory needs but still fall short on their regulation of other aspects of the night such as sound and strobe lighting. Unclear information about the presence of strobe lighting at the now inactive club night Crossbreed led Meshi to have a seizure. Considering the high co-morbidity between autism and epilepsy, it’s important that clubs get this right. 

 When talking to Meshi, Maze realised they faced a similar experience, being told throughout their life “you’re normal, you’re fine, supress this.” Two minds came together, and Spectrum was born. 

For them, creating a fun neurodivergent inclusive space means targeting both the social and physical aspects of a club night. The night is “community guided”, allowing people to exist in a welcoming space and voice their concerns, no questions asked. Staff, security and performers are all fully briefed. For physical requirements, they stick to the legal limit of 85 Decibels maximum and use safe lighting, with proper regulation for strobes. Alongside this, they have a chill out space - a staple of autistic friendly venues. At Spectrum, this has worked well, but Maze says these can be abused at other events, usually “being filled with people K-Holing”. 

(Credit: Dalston Superstore)


When seeking refuge from sensory overload, a room of people exhibiting behaviour due to drug use can be unsafe for all parties. It can make the purpose of a chill out space null and void, with unpredictable noise and behaviour coming from those who have co-opted the space. It can also prevent effective care for drug users if needed. At Spectrum, this space is manned throughout the night to keep everyone safe. This is another reason that effective training for staff is vital. When staff are able to recognise who needs what help these measures can operate to full efficiency. 

How widespread is this issue?

Tom Purser from The National Autistic Society highlights these features as being “vital to keeping arts industries inclusive for autistic people”. He says “Clear communication and sensory rooms can make a huge difference” for all sensory friendly events, regardless of nature. He tells me that these accommodations can be made easily throughout all types of entertainment. “It's the unpredictability of things like long waits that can be distressing. But small changes like quiet tours are so important”. The Spectrum team also tells me that although sometimes not all access requirements can be physically met “accessibility for the neurodivergent body is totally within a club’s capability”. 

Although there are a few options for sensory-friendly club nights across London, outside of the capital these are few and far between. There are events in towns such as Bristol and Lincoln, but there is a large lack of these nights spread throughout the UK, making it even harder for autistic adults in more remote areas. 

With this rise in audience, it seems illogical not to cater for it. Barbican’s acting head of cinema, Jonathan Gleneadie says it’s “not for a lack of desire”. 

“In what we do, everything is relaxed. If someone makes noise, that’s fine. It’s more about making everybody comfortable”  

The main restrictions he sees in creating autism friendly spaces are in resources and attitudes. The Barbican won a National Autistic Society award for their relaxed screenings, showing a wide variety of films for all ages. They also provide these relaxed screenings at their film festivals to ensure that adults with sensory accessibility needs can watch something a little more grownup than the latest Disney release. 

Jonathan says for other cinemas, “there can be trepidation when people get fearful of making mistakes, but people want to do these things.” It’s one of the reasons why clear communication is key to these events. Jonathan says a common fear is that if these events were to go wrong, the negative media attention could bring about a large financial blow - something independent cinemas would struggle to deal with.  

For him, this is why it’s important to broaden the parameters of neurodivergent friendly spaces. “In what we do, everything is relaxed. If someone makes noise, that’s fine. It’s more about making everybody comfortable.”  

(Credit: Dalston Superstore)


“For the future of this, there are so many people who would benefit. I want it to look like a relaxed screening and a focused screening rather than a relaxed screening and a normal screening. One is not less or changed – they’re just different.”

This year, The Barbican Cinema is working with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival to make some screenings relaxed. Jonathan says that a lack of understanding of what relaxed screenings really are can be a setback. When the planning for the festival arose, Jonathan was asked “do you think the label of a relaxed screening will put people off?”. After taking a quick straw poll of his colleagues, he discovered a lot of people thought “yeah, that might not be for me”. He says this is yet another reason why the messaging and communication of sensory friendly spaces are so important. They can be for everyone. 

It’s this sentiment that could be a game changer for sensory-friendly nightlife. It can be as exciting, electric and gratifying as a night out designed for the able body and neurotypical mind. In order to achieve this, neurodivergent adults must have their voices heard in the creation of these events. When they are heard, the results are sensational. You only have to look as far as the array of autism centred shows at this year’s Vault Festival to see this. 

Maze and Meshi tell me their plans to add to the rich tapestry of nightlife with autism friendly cabaret and spoken word events. This is all part of their aim of showing how achievable these events can be. They draw inspiration from Hart Club, a community interest group working to champion neurodiversity in the arts. Their current hub is closing its doors as it can’t keep up with the rising cost of living. They offer a wide range of events, from club nights to art installations, proving there is every opportunity for all forms of entertainment to be accessible. 

While they are without a physical space, now is the time for promoters and creators to follow in their footsteps and create entertainment that can be enjoyed by all adults. As Maze says, everyone stands to benefit, “this is for us, this is for you, this is for everyone.” 

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