Chapter 11 of NeuroTribes, In Autistic Space, tells of the advent of interaction badges (also called color communication badges) on the ANI-L list in 1995 and at the first Autreat in 1996.
In 1995, an organization for parents of “high-functioning” children asked Sinclair to organize a series of presentations at an upcoming conference. He opened up the process to the members of ANI-L, who explored ways of making the event as a whole more accessible and comfortable for people on the spectrum. They requested that a special quiet room be set aside for people who needed to chill out or totally shut down for a while. They also devised an ingeniously low-tech solution to a complex problem. Even highly verbal autistic adults occasionally struggle with processing and producing speech, particularly in the chaotic and generally overwhelming atmosphere of a conference. By providing attendees with name-tag holders and pieces of paper that were red on one side and yellow on the other, they enabled Autistics to communicate their needs and desires without having to articulate them in the pressure of the moment. The red side facing out signified, “Nobody should try to interact with me,” while the yellow side meant, “Only people I already know should interact with me, not strangers.” (Green badges were added later to signify, “I want to interact but am having trouble initiating, so please initiate an interaction with me.”) These color-coded “interaction signal badges” turned out to be so useful that they have since been widely adopted at autistic-run events all over the world, and name-tag labels similar to Autreat (“ autistic retreat”) green badges have recently been employed at conferences for Perl programmers to indicate that the wearer is open to spontaneous social approaches.
The conference began with an orientation session in the main lodge led by Sinclair, who explained the guidelines that had been established to maintain and preserve the environment as autistic space. Photographs and videos could only be taken after asking for permission, and only outdoors, so that the flash didn’t trigger seizures. Cigarette smoking and perfumes were banned. Respect for each person’s solitude and personal space was essential, and the interaction badges allowed everyone to know at a glance who was open to talking. All of the conference events were optional, including the orientation itself; the overriding principle was “opportunity but not pressure.”
Interaction badges are used at autistic conferences and are showing up at tech, sci-fi, fantasy, comic, and fandom cons. I’ve never been to a conference that uses them, but I rarely go to conferences because they induce extreme sensory overwhelm.
Cons are overwhelming sensory spaces–often with no places to escape. Adjusting to them takes time. During that adjustment, social and verbal interaction are beyond me. I’m busy managing a flood. Interaction badges would help quiet edge walkers like myself. I’d love to see more WordCamps, as well as the Automattic Grand Meetup, try them. WordCamp Philly used interaction badges at their 2017 event. Accounts on social media suggest it went well.
Our family uses these communication necklaces in our unschool.
Interaction badges are useful tools. Their red, yellow, green communication indicators map to my cave, campfire, and watering hole moods. The cave, campfire, watering hole and red, yellow, green reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism.
The quotes and resources below discuss the origins, use, and benefits of interaction badges.
“Opportunity but not pressure” is a core principle for all Autreat activities: attendance at presentations, informal discussions that are held in the evenings, swimming and other recreational activities, socializing, meals (people who prefer to make their own meal arrangements are able to register for Autreat without paying for Autreat meals), on-site lodging (people who prefer to stay at an off-site hotel can register for Autreat at a commuter rate)—all participation is purely voluntary.
Freedom from pressures and expectations
For some autistic people attending Autreat, the sudden absence of pressures and expectations to behave in certain ways can be quite disorienting at first. NT people are often disoriented as well, and may experience culture shock. One NT attendee described feeling unsure of how to behave and how to relate to people, confused about how to interpret other people’s behavior, and anxious that he might offend people without realizing it (personal communication). In other words, he was able to experience at Autreat some of the same social confusion and discomfort that autistic people frequently experience in NT society. While this can be somewhat disturbing, a number of NT people have reported that it was a valuable experience that helped them to better understand what autistic people go through on a daily basis.
The absence of any expectation or pressure to socialize, and the knowledge that they’re free to withdraw at any time, seem to free many autistic people to want to socialize.”
Source: History of ANI
Featured in: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking
Color Communication Badges are an accommodation to support social interaction for people with a variety of disabilities and communication needs. Color communication badges were first developed by Autism Network International, and popularized by the Autistic community in Autistic spaces and conferences.
Color Communication Badges offer those who use them an opportunity to communicate explicitly the degree to which they want to participate in new social interactions and with who. They offer a universally designed way of making a conference, university, event or other space more accessible to those who may not find typical nonverbal social cues accessible. Many non-disabled people report that this system also benefits them too.
Color Communication Badges are a system which were first developed in Autistic spaces and conferences. They help people tell everyone who can see their badge about their communication preferences.
A color communication badge is a name tag holder that can pin or clip onto clothing. In the name tag holder there are three cards: one green card that says “GREEN”, one yellow card that says “YELLOW”, and one red card that says “RED.”
The card that is currently visible is the active card; the other two are hidden behind the first one, accessible to the person if they should need them.
Showing a green badge means that the person is actively seeking communication; they have trouble initiating conversations, but want to be approached by people who are interested in talking.
Showing a yellow badge means that the person only wants to talk to people they recognize, not by strangers or people they only know from the Internet. The badge-wearer might approach strangers to talk, and that is okay; the approached people are welcome to talk back to them in that case. But unless you have already met the person face-to-face, you should not approach them to talk.
Showing a red badge means that the person probably does not want to talk to anyone, or only wants to talk to a few people. The person might approach others to talk, and that is okay; the approached people are welcome to talk back GREEN YELLOW RED to them in that case. But unless you have been told already by the badge-wearer that you are on their “red list”, you should not approach them to talk.
Color communication badges are a good aid because they allow people to express their current communication preference quickly, nonverbally, and simply – people can change what card is showing if their preference changes. They are a good way to prevent situations where someone is caught in a social situation they do not want to be in, or situations where someone wants to talk but can’t initiate.
Source: Color Communication Badges
At this conference, not only did we use these communication badges pictured above, but we actually had the opportunity to meet Jim Sinclair, the inventor of these badges.
During the part of the conference in which Jim Sinclair gave us a history of Autism Network International (ANI)—which they were a co-founder of—they talked to us about the establishment of this particular piece of assistive technology. Basically, it was a simple idea that seemed to fit a need and quickly became very popular among many autistic spaces for it’s practicality and ease of use.
The Curb-Cutter Effect is when something to fit a specific need is found to create convenience in a broader area than intended. Curb cuts allowing for wheelchair accessibility to sidewalks proved to also be convenient to anyone who may have trouble with steps or even simply a mother with a baby stroller or maybe a child with a wagon. This is a desirable outcome with disability rights advocacy as creating convenience for non-disabled people often makes the assistive technology easier to advocate for.
In this sense, these colored communication badges could serve that Curb-Cutter effect. Not only would this be perfectly acceptable for non-disabled people to use for convenience, but would also help to increase their effectiveness and convenience for those of us who need them.
Source: Autieble Sam
I found that interaction badges make a huge difference with autistic access. People take them seriously and you can use them to have no one initiate interaction with you, or only people you’d told in advance can do so. I found them helpful the one time I was overloaded and couldn’t deal with people, and also found the green badges helpful for knowing I had permission to talk to people.
The orange star is to give people permission to ask if they may touch you, for example for people who like to be hugged and would like people to ask for permission to hug them. Without this star no one should even ask to touch you, let alone hug.
I really enjoyed my experience at Autscape and I’ve already registered to go back this year. I especially enjoyed the sensory room and the ‘sparklies in the dark’ group stimming outside after dark. It was wonderful to be in clearly autistic space where stimming and being explicit and direct were the norm and celebrated. I’m looking forwards to going again this year 🙂
A lot of people are, understandably, quite concerned about the heavy social demands of being in a large group for several days. There is no requirement to socialise at all, and there will be no implicit or explicit disapproval of those who choose not to interact with others. There is coloured badge system for indicating whether you would like to socialise or not.
- No initiation – Red – Please do not initiate any interaction with me.
- Prior Permission – Yellow – Please do not initiate unless I have already given you permission to approach me on a yellow badge.
- Please initiate – Green – I would like to socialise, but I have difficulty initiating. Please initiate with me.
- Neutral – White (or no badge) – I am able to regulate my own interaction.
People who do not wish to be in any photographs or video may wear a black circle.
Important: It is not necessary to use any badge at all. If you are okay with approaching others, and with others approaching you (even if you do not wish to interact, but are comfortable saying so), then there is no need to use a coloured badge. If green is used as a default for everyone who wishes to interact, whether they can initiate or not, then it is less meaningful for those who have difficulty initiating and rely on others to approach them.
Source: Autscape: Autistic needs
I’ve wished, pretty much since I learned about them, that the rest of the world would implement Color Communication Badges, especially for events like conferences where so much emphasis of the benefit is placed on the face-to-face connections: in other words, the socializing – that thing I can’t do. My dear friend, Nightengale, made a wonderful argument in her most recent post about why we need to introduce the badges into schools. Because what we expect people to want isn’t necessarily the same as what they do want, and the first step in advocacy is ask-vocacy: ask the person.
That got me thinking about the benefit of implementing Color Communication Badges in my classroom, not just for my students but for myself as well. There’s pretty much nothing a student can do in my classroom that will bother me, or prevent learning from happening, but there are 4 little words that can throw off an entire lesson or even an entire day:
“Do you have a minute?”
The unwritten answer to this question, of course, is “yes.” I work very hard to be flexible and accessible for collaboration. It’s worked. It’s worked a little too well, to the point where people think it’s okay to interrupt me in the middle of lessons. But the fact remains that, a lot of the time, I don’t have a minute. I’m with a student or group; I’m mentally (sometimes physically) organizing the next lesson; or I’m taking a much needed breather so I can be “on” again in a minute.
The problem is, once I’ve explained that, no, now is not a good time (because it would be rude to just ignore you) I’ve already lost that focus so I might as well recoup my losses and go down the rabbit hole on whatever you wanted “a minute” about. Maybe it will be useful. So I have acquired a reputation of being always accessible that is actually counterproductive to the way my brain works.
As an autistic person, I can think of lots of reason why this child might have preferred to be sitting alone. His other option might have been sitting with bullies, which was my only other option at his age. Of course, the adults didn’t see the kids talking to me as bullies. They saw them as nice. Nice people peppering me with questions about why I did all the things I did differently than everyone else, from my food, my wardrobe and my vocabulary. Alone was certainly preferable to that, and if this child is being bullied, that should be addressed.
But there are other reasons for a person, any person but most specifically, an autistic person, to seek solitude. Perhaps the only choices of people to talk with have such vastly different interests there would be no topic of conversation. Perhaps the sound of others chewing food is distressing. Perhaps one just needs some time to recharge and think, without having to process language and social cues.
Karla Fisher has a great visual she uses for IEP advocacy called “Our breaks are not like NT breaks.” She points out that, for an autistic person, lunch and recess can be the most stressful times of the day.
On a regular basis at work, I hear about children who are alone at lunch and recess, from their worried parents. I always ask the child what they like to do at those times. Sometimes I hear stories of wanting to play but being excluded. Often I hear stories of not being able to find someone who wants to play or do similar things. And then I hear about the child who prefers to spend recess looking for rocks – alone. It always seems I am the first person to have ever asked the question.
The autistic community has a solution for this, for autistic events. They are Color Communication Badges. With green displayed, the message is to approach. With yellow, only known people are welcomed. With red displayed, the wearer is to be left alone except in direst emergency. This makes it easy at autistic events, to know if a person sitting alone would relish or loathe company.
Why don’t we have something like that at schools? Color badges or seat markers or perhaps a choice chart the child can use in class before recess.