Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to Make an Exhibition of Yourself

IT doesn’t take much to persuade me to drive to Birmingham, since it’s my home town and my best friend still lives there. After a gossip, an overview of the Strictly Come Dancing highlights, a curry and a trip down the local, it was time to reluctantly acknowledge that the point of my visit was actually to do some work. So off I headed along the Hagley Road to the Autism Central exhibition in Edgbaston.

Was it my imagination or was there a slight feeling of insecurity that drifted over the collected exhibitors as they sneaked a peek at each other’s tables (and freebies) during set-up hour? I shuffled our AuKids banners around nervously, shifting them an inch or two to the left, then an inch or two to the right, in the resolutely autistic fashion that has become my trademark at exhibitions. One of them collapsed on me and snapped down to the ground extremely loudly, causing curious glances from neighbouring sides.

It’s because we’re a small company, you see. There’s this anxiety that behind the glorious technicolour table and the logo T-shirts, people will find out that AuKids is run by three men and a Mars bar (with this analogy, it appears that I'm the Mars bar) and this will disappoint them.

That, however, is a load of nonsense, as people are usually delighted to find out that we’re small enough to be in touch with our readers. No need to get all insecure about it, I thought, as I glanced at a banner about triple the size of ours which required a degree in engineering to construct (thus I won’t be buying one).

Tori couldn’t make it on this occasion and I wondered if life would be boring without anyone to insult today (that’s a two-way street, before you dream of industrial tribunals). But no sooner had I finished rearranging the AuKids pens into a delightful fan shape with the logo side face upwards (ASD alert), a steady stream of people began to walk past the stand and engage me in conversation on my favourite subject – autism.

Exhibitions tend to be a faff. This one was pretty plain sailing, due to the organisers QAC  (Queen Alexandra College) trusting exhibitors to have two neurones to rub together. They didn’t require me to fill in an e-mail plus signed form (to be faxed) in order to gain permission to breathe during the exhibition. Nor did they send forty emails beforehand, all contradicting themselves and giving baffling instructions on where to park your car and unload it. They assumed that you’d find a car parking space and stick it there.

So in between rearranging my pen display, I could relax and enjoy meeting new people. There were parents who were waiting for a diagnosis,  eager to find out more but baffled by the information out there. There were parents with grown-up kids looking into colleges and the world of work. I met a mum with four autistic children who is also married to someone on the spectrum.  She could have taught the exhibitors more than they taught her. There were autistic adults, some of whom had been brave enough to give a seminar. “Were you nervous?” I asked a young student with Asperger’s. “It was a breeze,” he replied happily. Being autistic isn't ALWAYS difficult.

Then came a stream of professionals from various sectors. What really struck me was that they often had their own connection with autism and they had a real passion for the subject. Often they’d set up something from scratch through a sense of injustice. A couple had written books. The room was a melting pot of  ambition, creativity and vitality...people doing the right thing because they wanted to. Really good people whose souls were bound together by a condition that they admittedly didn't always understand.

The exhibitors often had their own fascinating stories, too, of what had inspired them to be involved. We all talked all day, analysing each other’s pasts, sharing common experiences, debating what was right and wrong. During one of my quiet moments, I noted the loud hum of conversation in the room and thought how distinctly neurotypical we were all being in our efforts to help people with autism.

I loved it, though. There’s nothing quite like being part of this world, where so many people want to make a difference for all the right reasons. You get inspired being around that sort of energy all day. And as I swapped four AuKids pens for a Dimensions Rubik’s Cube with logo (frankly it knocked the socks off our pens), I was glad I came.

If you went, I hope you were too.