Loud noise makes Rita Johnson ’21 extremely anxious, and flashing lights can be difficult for her to process.
Because of her sensory issues, a night out at a typical dance club doesn’t hold much appeal for her. But on Friday night in the Cabaret, Johnson and a group of friends glittered up, grabbed some glow sticks and danced the night away at Emerson’s first Silent Disco.
And when she wanted to chill out, she just took off her headset, and everything was quiet. For the most part.
“It got a little loud sometimes when people were singing out loud, but overall it was a very nice event,” said Johnson, a Political Communication major. “I felt very comfortable there, which is the overall goal, that autistic people can feel comfortable and not overwhelmed.”
Partygoers grabbed a pair of headphones through which they could listen to one of three “channels”: two featuring songs spun by DJs, and one that consisted of a playlist of “throwback” tunes made by organizer Mary Gagliardotto ’19 and her friends. Guests controlled not only the type of music they heard, but also the volume at which they heard it.
“[Silent discos] just are an absolute riot,” said Jeff Morris, assistant director of Off-Campus Student Services (OCSS), a sponsor of the event. “It’s cooler than a concert because it’s basically three concerts in one that anyone can attend, [and] they get to pick which concert they want to be at.”
Emerson’s Silent Disco was spearheaded by Gagliardotto, a Communication Sciences and Disorders major and the president of the Emerson chapter of the National Students Speech Language Hearing Association. About 120 students came out for the event, according to organizers.
In organizing the party, whichGagliardotto reached out to not only OCSS, but Student Accessibility Services. She also consulted students, such as Johnson, who know first-hand what would and would not work.
“We just wanted to make it an event that was inclusive to everyone for Autism Awareness Month,” Gagliardotti said.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) arises when sensory signals either aren’t detected, or “don’t get organized into appropriate responses,” according to STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. Symptoms run from mild to severe, but can include sensitivity to sound, light, or physical sensation. Many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience symptoms of SPD, although many with sensory processing issues are not on the autism spectrum.
Lighting for the event was designed to be more steady and soothing than a standard dance party, and in lieu of face painting, which means brushes rubbing over skin, there was body glitter, which is virtually undetectable. There was inflatable furniture set up in various lounging areas for when it was time to take a breather, and plenty of food for fuel.
Johnson recommended that the organizers use a lot of blue lighting, because it can be more soothing than other colors, and she uses it in her own room when she’s feeling stressed.
“In general, lighting that changes too rapidly and that is too bright can make me very anxious, and I know can make other people very anxious,” Johnson said. “Flashing lights in general also are not great because rapid changes … [are] harder to process.”
Morris, from Off-Campus Student Services, said he’s been involved in silent discos at other institutions, both as an organizer and a participant, and he loves the idea.
It’s interesting to walk into a crowded room without a headset and hear almost nothing. And
“It’s dead silent and that’s the funniest part,” he said. Then, when you put the headphones on and the songs have words, “you start to see people singing along to them, you say, ‘Oh, you’re listening to that? Me too!’”