Making the Museum Autism Friendly – best practice from around the world
February 17 2019
By Charlotte Coates
There are many museums working hard to make Autistic people feel welcome.
Autism is a condition which affects how a person experiences the world around them. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world in a different way to other people.
It is a spectrum condition, and Autistic people are not all the same. All share some difficulties in how they interact with the world. But this affects them in different ways. The amount of support that an Autistic person will need depends on the individual. Having some knowledge of the common challenges they face can help museums learn to support them.
How can autism make a museum visit difficult?
Autistic people can find busy, crowded environments difficult. This means that a visit to a museum at peak time could be challenging. During these times there are lots of people and increased noise.
Changes in light and noise levels can also cause distress. Some museums have film commentaries or interactive displays that play automatically. These sudden noises and images have the potential to trigger a negative reaction. Bright lights and displays can result in sensory overload. The sheer scale and size of a large museum could make a visit difficult – having lots of different rooms with no clear route around can be overwhelming.
No one museum is the same, and many Autistic people find visiting unknown places a challenge in itself. Both they and their families will often do a lot of research and planning before taking a trip to a new place.
How museums are working towards being autism friendly
Autistic people have a variety of different needs and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. However, there are many different ways that museums can create a positive experience for visitors.
Much of the work is around helping people to prepare for their visit. Museums can make information available beforehand. For example, making maps available to download at home. Some organisations let people know the least busy times to visit. Small actions like these can make a huge difference.
Other museums have had a lot of success with early or late opening sessions for Autistic people. These sessions mean that they can visit when the museum is not crowded and noisy. Museums can alter light levels and display volumes especially for these visiting hours.
Autistic people can sometimes experience sensory overload. It may mean that they have a meltdown. Providing a separate space to sit which is calm and quiet can be useful. It is also important that staff are trained to react appropriately. This can mean that families do not feel they are being judged if an individual does have a meltdown.
Providing museum resources to support Autistic people
The V&A Museum of Childhood has worked with families to produce resources that support Autistic people. This includes a page of information available on their website. They provide answers to lots of questions that people might ask before planning a visit. These include information about café and toilet facilities, ways to avoid the shop if necessary, and which times of day are the quietest. The museum also lets people know that a quiet room is available if necessary.
One of the resources that the museum has produced is the ‘Making SENse Family Pack’. These are backpacks that visitors can borrow for free. The packs include maps and activity suggestions, as well as toys to play with. They make use of PECS symbols, which are a visual support to help with communication. The museum can also provide ear defenders. These can prevent a person from getting overwhelmed by a loud environment
The V&A Museum of Childhood provides a ‘Making SENse’ pre-visit guide. People can access this from home via the V&A website. It is a photographic guide which can help people to plan their visit. It is designed to help people with autism know what to expect from a visit to the museum.
Other London Museums have made their buildings more accessible to Autistic people too. The Natural History museums has been running Dawnosaurs since 2016 which is free and visitor numbers are controlled. The Science Museum runs Early Birds sessions, and is also expanding into events for 16-25 year olds called Night Owls.
Special museum opening for Autistic visitors
In the US, the Smithsonian runs ‘Morning at the Museum’ events at its venues around the city. The program started in 2011 and offers early entry to those on the spectrum. The museum also runs sensory-friendly activities.
This initiative is about more than just opening the doors a little early. The events take place throughout the year and are planned well in advance. The museum worked with a committee of professionals, educators, families and people with autism themselves to design the concept. Each museum has pre-visit materials available. These are to help people plan their visit. They focus on things like the museum layout and facilities and include sensory maps and tips. The events have sensory activities that visitors can take part in. They also ensure there are quiet spaces available.
Providing early access to the museum means that curators can adapt the surroundings. Lights can are dimmed in certain areas, and volume levels on displays can be turned down. Early entry schemes mean that buildings are quieter and less crowded. They also mean families can avoid queuing, which can sometimes be a point of difficulty.
Museum programming for Autistic people
This museum has been running an interesting after-school programme since 2011. It is called ‘Subway Sleuths’ and it works to build confidence and social skills. The museum noted that some people on the autistic spectrum have a shared interest in trains and transport. The programme brings these people together for peer-to-peer interaction.
Each session is facilitated by a speech and language professional, as well as a special education teacher. There is also a transit museum educator. The participants work in groups to solve problems and become transit experts. The programme takes place in the transit museum’s decommissioned subway station.
Amanda Franquinha is the special education teacher and support therapist who facilities the session. She says that the children gain confidence and make genuine connections with their peers during the programme. “It’s really beautiful and moving,” Franquinha said. “The wonderful thing for a lot of them is they still maintain that friendship after sleuths. They’re sharing an experience, that’s the actual goal.” The sessions are flexible and tailored to the needs of each group.
These free to download apps which have been developed for both Apple and Android devices are available for museums including The Chicago Children’s Museum, The Field Museum and The Shedd Aquarium.
Infiniteach apps feature social guides, games, tips and maps that highlight quiet areas, tactile spaces and sensory trigger points. Another feature of the app is a visual schedule, this helps visitors to make sense of the museum and tick off each area of the museum as they go around.
Some Autistic people can be reluctant to ask for help as approaching staff can cause anxiety. The app allows them to find answers to questions themselves. The museums have also catered to non-verbal visitors with the app. It includes communication tools. Users can press buttons to make their device ask a question or make a statement, such as “where is the bathroom” and “I need a break”. It also lets them talk about the displays, by communicating areas they are enjoying, and allowing them to ask questions such as “which is your favourite?”. This means the communication is two-way and visitors can use the app to enjoy the museum together.
Lessening anxiety for Autistic visitors
MoMA offers a social guide on its website. This allows people to download it in advance and read through a storyboard of what a visit will entail. Guides such as this are great for families to look at together. They can also be used by Autistic people to lessen anxiety before a solo visit.
The guide is laid out like a story. It narrates what a visitor will see as they approach and enter the museum, and what they will encounter inside. It has plenty of pictures so people already know what the museum will look like before their visit. Social guides talk about what facilities are available, and how to get around the museum. They also mention trigger points, such as the need to queue for tickets.
MoMA’s guide mentions that there are some behaviours that the museum expects. For example, not touching the art and not eating in the gallery. It also advises people to pick up a sensory map when they arrive, so they find where the quiet areas are.
Organisations that can help museums better support Autistic people
Claire Madge is a museum volunteer who runs Autism in Museums. She is a mum of three who has two children on the spectrum. Through her website, she shares lots of resources. Autism in Museums has worked with several museums in the UK including the V&A and the Natural History Museum. Madge has written some guidelines for best practice to help museums become more accessible to people with autism.
There are two main pieces of advice that repeat throughout these guides. The first is that it is important to talk to people with autism and their families. They are best placed to explain what their needs are and what would help make their visit easier. The second point is that museum staff need to be trained in autism awareness. In order to make people feel welcome, staff need to have an understanding of their needs.
Autism friendly museums make a difference
Museums need to be aware of the needs of Autistic visitors. There are many ways that they can make the museum experience easier and more enjoyable for them. From assisting with the planning stages to providing extra resources, these efforts can make or break a museum visit.
Madge talks about her own experience of attending an autism friendly event and the positive impact it has had on her family. “We visited the Science Museum for the very first time as a family because of their ‘Dawnosaurs’ autism early openings.” She explained. “It has been life changing for my daughter as she has gradually built up her confidence on each visit. Quiet openings give us a chance to enjoy museum spaces and collections, we take part in activities that we would never normally be able to access. Ultimately it is about having fun together as a family, something many families take for granted.”
For Autistic people and their families, planning a day out can be a difficult prospect. When museums work to make this process easier, it can make a huge difference. What might have previously been a barrier to entry can become easier to deal with. Museums are for all, and everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy them.
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.