No sleep, meltdowns and Billie Eilish: my first music festival as an autistic person | Music

todayAugust 29, 2023

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Since my teenage years, I’ve always wanted to attend a music festival. But as an autistic person, the thought of being crammed into a loud, rowdy crowd of tens of thousands of people has always scared me. For years I avoided them. Instead, I would watch my friends enjoy themselves at big festivals from the sidelines of social media platforms.

However, after experiencing a bad breakup in January and adopting a mindset of trying new things, I decided to take the plunge and go to this year’s Reading festival with my friend. This decision to leave my comfort zone was made easier by a quick Google search revealing that Reading festival offers a range of disabled access services.

After making the three-hour journey from Neath, south Wales, to Reading, my friend and I arrived at the festival last Thursday afternoon only to be confronted by a gigantic check-in queue. Thankfully, we were able to skip it and enter at a much smaller and quieter welcome point for disabled guests. Once we showed our tickets and accessibility information, a helpful volunteer directed us to the disabled car park.

I won’t lie: walking from that car park to the disabled campsite felt like a marathon. And while there was a golf cart to transport disabled guests, space on it always seemed sparse. In the end, we made several trips from the car to the campsite. After panting for dear life, a volunteer noticed me struggling with my bags and kindly offered to carry them for the remainder of the arduous journey.

After the workout of the century, we were faced with the task of putting up our tent. My mother, a diehard Amazon shopper, had found a pop-up one designed to make my life easier. Yet with my poor coordination skills still I struggled with this super-easy contraption. The resulting mess looked more like a car crash than something I could live in for several nights. Thankfully, my friend was on hand to offer much-needed assistance. Otherwise I would have ended up sleeping in the portable toilets for three nights.

Nicholas Fearn on the viewing stand at Reading festival. Photograph: Courtesy Nicholas Fearn

Once the tent was up, my friend and I explored the disabled campsite. I was shocked to find only a handful of accessible toilets. Because my tent was located at the opposite end of the site, walking to the toilets took some time. Using the closer, regular toilets wasn’t viable for me as I have arthritis and autism also affects my coordination. Long grass along the way created a trip hazard, too.

There could also have been a greater number of accessible showers, although because of my OCD, sharing a shower with strangers wasn’t high on my to-do list anyway. I managed to avoid this nightmare scenario by using “shampoo caps”. Similar in design to a shower cap, they contain chemicals that wash your hair without water and are often used by hospital patients. Full-body wipes were also a necessity.

Sleeping in a tent wasn’t a great experience, especially as I am an insomniac. Hearing fireworks, loud voices and blaring music in the early hours of the morning caused sensory overload and meant I had little to no sleep. But a few sips of gin and a Mariah Carey playlist helped me relax in the claustrophobic tent.

Despite a difficult first night, I was excited to explore the arenas and attend my first festival sets the following day. There was a separate route into the arena for disabled guests. While long, it was quiet, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by large crowds. I also took the golf cart a few times, preventing the arthritis in my knees from flaring up and ruining my first day at the festival.

Inside the arena, my friend and I navigated our new surroundings before heading to the bar for a much-needed alcoholic drink. The bar had a separate access point for disabled guests, so I didn’t have to wait in a long queue of drunk festival-goers. I felt slightly overlooked by the bar staff, who seemed only to serve people in the standard queue. Eventually, though, I managed to grab the attention of a staff member and ordered a cider.

When it came to attending artists’ sets at the various arenas, I could watch from a disabled viewing stand. Most of the volunteer staff accommodated my needs, but the viewing stands were usually at full capacity during the bigger sets. In fact, I couldn’t watch Becky Hill’s performance as the disabled area was full. Standing in a large crowd was too much for me. Consequently, I had an autistic meltdown and had to sit in my car to calm down.

I nearly missed Billie Eilish’s highly anticipated set because of my negative experience during Becky Hill’s gig. But when I felt calmer, I returned to the arena and got into the disabled area just in time for Billie’s performance. Although most of the seats were occupied, I enjoyed the set. There was an electrifying atmosphere, with many of the disabled guests, family members, and carers singing and dancing along to Billie’s hits. I did, however, leave during her encore to avoid a mass exodus out of the arena. If the viewing stand had been closer to the disabled exit, I’d have stayed.

On the whole, I had a pleasant time at my first music festival. While far from perfect, Reading’s accessibility services made this possible. I greatly respect the countless volunteers giving up their time to allow disabled people to enjoy busy festivals.

I probably won’t attend another festival soon. Little changes like ensuring there are more accessible toilets and showers located around the disabled campsite, cutting the grass so that people with coordination or mobility issues don’t fall over, and creating bigger viewing stands might make me feel differently.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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