Chill out spaces

(Transferred from my blog to here, to aid discussion…)
On a workshop registration form, I asked people how we can improve access for them, and quite a few asked for a quiet area to relax. In some cases this is probably for a diagnosed condition, but it made me think of my experience in Japan, where during Kumihimo braiding tuition, I was invited to have a nap on a tatami. Joanne and Lucy said that part way through a workshop they were giving on that trip, the participants would just go and lie down for a bit.

This seems such a nice thing to naturally do, and the relationship between resting/sleeping and learning is well known in psychology fields. Academic events I’ve attended have felt more like durational performance art than a productive way to learn or carry out research, with talks every 15 minutes (including questions), with the only breaks dedicated to necking caffeine and dry biscuits. Some people need to chill out once in a while, but more relaxation would likely be better for everyone!

This raises some difficult question about what a quiet space should be like… How to make a quiet space where people feel safe? Should they be gender segregated? If so, how to best do that while properly respecting everyone’s gender identity? How to negotiate people who like to chill out by chatting, while others like to chill out by introspecting? What if it’s super popular? Might have to invest in some tatami mats…


I had a “quiet room” at BSides Leeds, in addition to a Mental Health Village - where people could just relax, watch videos, we hired two masseuses to give massages, as well as having inflatable sleeping things and weighted blankets. This was for a conference of around 320 people, but it all went down very well. With respect to the quiet room - it was very small, and we kept it dark and filled it with chairs (I wanted beanbags but the company who was gonna loan us them failed to) - in all, maybe 10% actually used the space, from what the volunteers monitoring it told me, but those who did use it were ecstatic.

My takeaway from this would be to definitely have a room that is designated “quiet space”, fill it with things to help people to relax, and make it available. If you can do more, then do so, but just the existence of the space helped.

Additionally - we also had ‘anxiety management’ cards. These were just strips of red, yellow, and green, ad you could get a set from the MHV. If you were willing to be sociable, wear the green. If you didn’t want anyone to talk to you, wear the red. If you only wanted people you knew to speak to you, wear the yellow. Ofc, we had to draw faces on them as red/green colour-blindness is the most common >.< But these also helped - esp. as I announced it and made sure everyone knew what they were at the opening ceremony. :slight_smile:

Hope this lengthy response helps!

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The best one of these I’ve ever been in was one that was set up based on this, which is a good starting point I think. The one I experienced was at an open-house performance art night, so was much noisier and more overstimulating than I imagine a workshop would be, but the combination of badges that showed if someone was willing/not willing to chat, plus having earplugs available, worked really well and seemed to resolve the ‘what if some people want to chat and other people want quiet’ problem.

Much in line with largecardinal’s experience, it wasn’t a super busy space, but people drifted in and out. I don’t think they had games in the space, just books and (I think) some tactile stuff, and I’m pretty sure they only had earplugs available as hearing protection, but otherwise it was pretty close to the description in the link, and it seemed to do the job. It was simple and low-budget and it was really great, and I used it, and after a bit I felt less like I was crashing, and then I went and enjoyed the rest of the night.

(mostly a side note, but: one thing from the above link I disagree a bit with is the idea it’s essential to have a person on the autism spectrum design a given quiet space, and I say this as someone with an Aspergers diagnosis. I think that presupposes way too much about why people might use it, and I also think it is generally a bad idea to tailor access features with the potential for wide appeal to specific diagnoses. Someone might need to tap out for a bit because they’re autistic, but they might also need to because they’re trying to fend off a panic attack, or because they didn’t sleep well the night before, or because they’re hung over, or because they just need a minute to process a thing they just learned, and all of those people might concentrate better and enjoy themselves more after taking a few moments in a space where they don’t have to run as many brain background processes for a bit. I 100% agree with Alex that everyone can benefit from relaxation between learning, and I think designing for a broad range of reasons to use a quiet space is preferable to thinking too rigidly. That said - I also think autistic people as a group tend to have useful ideas about sensory design, because we tend to have to think more about what makes an environment good/bad/bearable/unbearable. But anyway.)

The worst quiet space I have ever been in was one at a pretty large tech event (naming no names :wink: ) which was horrible on a sensory level (fluorescent-lit, lots of sound leakage, very hot, a very loud heavy door that was impossible to close quietly) but the thing that really ruined it was that there was no structure or ground rules on how people should interact in the space, or any indication of what the purpose of the space was other than a sign saying QUIET ROOM on the door. No one was sure of how they should behave in there, so people were dipping in and out and anxiously asking people already using the space if it was okay for them to be in there, and what it was for, and if they had to have permission to use it, and it was immensely stressful to be present for! I think it could have been improved just by putting a sign up explaining what it was, even.

I would personally (as a cis woman) feel pretty weird and uncomfortable and not good at all about the space being gender-segregated, but I’m struggling to unpack why I feel that way right now so not sure if I can make helpful suggestions on that front. I think having clear rules about what kind of communication/contact is off-limits in the space might be a better way of dealing with this (do not touch other people in the quiet space, for instance)?

I don’t need quiet spaces very often, but they are often a welcome addition for me, and they very very rarely make the difference between me having to go home, and being able to stay at an event. As largecardinal suggests, just knowing the space is there is one less thing to worry about, which makes it less likely I’ll burn myself out enough to need to use it.

Sorry if this is really muddled and hard to read, I should be asleep. I hope some of it is vaguely useful.

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I think this is a very fair assessment, and sorry to hear you had to suffer at the hand of a poorly implemented space. :confused: IT sounds like they didn’t actually engage with anyone in the know and didn’t do any research beyond how to spell ‘quiet’…

I think one that is sensitively designed, and most importantly integrated into the conference, can be hugely beneficial! It doesn’t have to be much, and the small cost of implementing one properly is vastly outweighed by the mental payoff (at least, these are the experiences recanted to me).