All are welcome: First annual Neurodiversity Cultural Festival celebrates our differences

Doug Blecher was 42 years old when he discovered he was autistic. The discovery helped put a lot of things in perspective for him: Why he felt overwhelmed in large crowds, why loud noises rattled him, and why he often left parties early, overstimulated.

This revelation, combined with his work as a personal coach for adults and teens with autism, spurred him to create what he believes is the largest Neurodiversity Cultural Festival in the United States—or at least in Northeast Ohio. The free event is designed to bring together the neurodiverse community for an event where everyone will be made to feel welcome.

The first annual Neurodiversity Festival will take place, rain or shine, on Saturday, Sept. 30 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Solon Community Park, 6679 SOM Center Road in Solon, and will feature food trucks, music, animals, and even a drag show. Admission is free. The Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities is a participating partner.

“It is aimed largely at teens and adults, but children are welcome, too,” Blecher says, adding that the intent and goal of the Neurodiversity Cultural Festival is to create a welcoming, comfortable environment for people with autism and other neurological challenges.

“My philosophy is to create the world I want to live in, with neurodivergent people in the forefront, not as an afterthought,” he says. “How can [this festival] be accessible in every possible way to neurodivergent people and make it as fun as possible?”

Toward that effort, Blecher and his team of volunteers and organizers are trying to address every little detail to make attendees comfortable.

Neurodiversity Cultural FestivalNeurodiversity Cultural FestivalThe Neurodiversity Cultural Festival will:

  • Provide quiet spaces for attendees who need a break when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Offer color-coded communication stickers to festival goers that will indicate whether a person wants to talk to someone or not. “When we don’t communicate in the way the community wants, there’s judgment,” Blecher explains. “We hope to reduce those things by giving boundaries for that communication.”
  • Provide the music lyrics on the website in advance for the songs the band, Rockability, will play. Rockability specifically collaborates with musicians and participants with developmental disabilities on performance-based projects.
Blecher says he is hoping for a crowd of 500 to 1,000 people. “If we get 10,000, we’re in trouble,” he says

Festival volunteer and education coordinator at Milestones Autism Resources Carly Millis-Jalowiec says she likes the approach Blecher and his team are taking to the event.

“It’s not ‘come to this festival so we can fix you,’” she explains. “It’s ‘come to this festival so we can celebrate you.’ That’s refreshing.”