The Chicago company opening museum doors to people with autism
By Charlotte Coates
A visit to a museum can be challenging for a person with autism. People on the spectrum interact with the world in a different way. The sounds, lights and crowds often associated with a busy museum can mean that they don’t get the most out of a visit and can find it overwhelming.
There are many museums working to become autism friendly. But one Chicago company is trying to change the way things are done. They have been developing innovative technology to help people with autism. Their work has already helped many museums to cater to this audience, including Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum.
Creating an accessible world
Infiniteach is an education technology company. They work to design products which help the autism community. These tools make it easier for people with autism to access education and culture.
Infiniteach believe in the inclusive power of technology. They aim to design tools that welcome and support everyone. The company produces downloadable guides in the form of apps, which include sensory maps and communication tools. These can help people with autism on a visit to an unfamiliar place, such as a museum. The apps are customisable for different institutions. They can feature games, interactive schedules and useful information. The Infiniteach website is also full of free resources. These include communication and behaviour supports, games, educational tools and useful advice.
In addition to the products they design, they also provide cloud-based learning. This covers topics such as inclusion, accessibility and universal design. These modules are aimed at staff, volunteers, and managers. Infiniteach wants to help institutions to discover these important concepts. This will help them to better serve individuals with disabilities and their families.
Where did the idea for Infiniteach come from?
Katie Hench founded the company alongside Christopher Flint and Lally Daley in 2013. Her younger brother was diagnosed with autism at the age of 6 and they grew up in rural Ohio in the ‘90s. She observed how difficult it was for her parents to get the right resources to help. Hench herself trained as a special education teacher. She wanted to use this expertise and scale it into a product that could help many more people. Apps are an affordable way to reach a large audience. Hench says that her brother is the inspiration behind her work at Infiniteach.
Flint also started his career as a special education teacher. Later he went on to train over 12,000 parents and teachers on best practice autism strategies. In addition this this, Flint founded an organisation called AACTION Autism. This non-profit provides autism training and resources in developing countries.
Daley explored autism home therapy while studying at University. She found that she enjoyed working with families around the topic of autism. She went on to co-facilitate social skills groups for children, as well as providing individual parent training. Daley has a master’s degree in Clinical Community Psychology.
None of the founders knew how to code. However, they were confident that their idea was something that people needed. They hired developers to help with the design of their first product. They now have 18 different apps available to download. These cover a wide range of museums, libraries, zoos, ballparks and more.
Successful Infiniteach projects
In 2017 the American Alliance of Museums awarded Chicago’s Field Museum an award. The Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion award recognised the work the museum has done, alongside Infiniteach, to improve their accessibility for people with autism. The ‘Field For All’ app allows people to personalise their visit to the museum. It helps families to plan their visit through exhibition previews, an interactive schedule, and a sensory-friendly map. The app includes communication tools such as tap to talk buttons. These allow the users to ask questions, make their needs known and talk about the experience together. There are also educational games to interest people in the topic. The app tells visitors what facilities are available and where. The sensory map highlights areas where the light and sound levels may be different.
Noah’s Ark at Skirball is an immersive experience for children and families. The installation takes up an 8,000 square foot gallery and is inspired by the famous biblical tale. Visitors are encouraged to climb, play, build and explore. The idea is to make connections, learn the value of community and inspire people to build a better world. The Ark is full of sounds, colours and textures. This can be both exciting and overwhelming for a person with autism. Infiniteach has developed an app for visitors to help them to plan and enjoy a visit. Looking at the app beforehand, families can prepare and know what to expect. The sensory map pinpoints potentially difficult areas. It also provides useful insider tips and information.
Infiniteach doesn’t just focus on museums either. They recently launched an app to help visitors plan a visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. This is designed to help families fly with less stress. They also work with libraries, for example, the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library. They even worked with JCC Chicago on an app designed to teach water safety and swim skills. The full library of apps can be found here.
Opening doors through technology
Not all people with autism are the same. Different people react in different ways and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Because the focus of these apps is on self-guided learning, they let people explore in their own way. They provide visitors with the tools they need to enjoy the museum experience in a way that suits them.
Innovations such as these allow museums to make people with autism feel included. With one of Infiniteach’s apps, people can easily navigate around a museum. They can interact with the displays and be aware of trigger points such as noisy exhibits or crowded areas. It can turn an unknown, scary place into one that feels welcoming. For families and people with autism, this tool can make a huge difference.
About the Author
Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.