Volunteers at Beamish

Autism-friendly museums: volunteers and employees

Nicola Sullivan, 15.03.2017
Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce
Many people on the autistic spectrum struggle when it comes to getting and keeping a job.

In fact, unemployment rates for adults with autism are at least double the rate of the national average, according to the North East Autism Society.

While this is partly due to difficulties around social interaction and communication, employers also often lack an understanding of what autism is and what it means in the workplace.  

However, museums can successfully recruit people with autism and provide volunteering opportunities if they are prepared to keep an open mind and make some minor adjustments to procedures and the working environment.

As well as bringing their own individual skills to a workforce, people with autism can help museums better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Museums that cater for the needs of people with autism at a workforce levels can help make up for the cultural sector’s lack of provision for young people and adults with the condition, says Claire Madge, a museum volunteer and blogger whose 12-year-old daughter has Asperger’s syndrome.

“The support is mainly for families and young people,” she says. “There is nothing for older people.”

Madge is working with the autism charity CASPA to run a nine-week work placement at the Museum of London for young adults with autism. The six participants will work in the museum’s archaeology archive, where they are involved in a number of different tasks, including the scanning of objects.

“A lot of the young people that come through CASPA have finished education but are not in further education and are not able to get work experience,” Madge says. “There is nothing for them. I think museums could do a huge amount to help with work experience and volunteering.”  

Beamish Museum in County Durham has successfully recruited people with autism as volunteers and employees. In 2015, 31-year-old Ailsa Riddel secured a paid position with the museum after a period of supported volunteering.

She performs a number of duties including serving customers in the open-air museum’s shops and answering questions from visitors.  

“I love working here and dealing with the public has made me so much more confident,” Riddel says. “When I was younger I applied to work at a supermarket. I got down to the final six but didn’t get the job. I think that put me off a bit but I’m really lucky to have the job I have got now.”

Beamish Museum developed its work to increase access for visitors, volunteers and employees in partnership with the North East Autism Society, and in 2015 it achieved the National Autism Charter, which sets out “realistic and achievable aspirations” for venues to become autism friendly.

Training was provided to museum staff and volunteers on the autism spectrum, which meant they were able to look at a visit from an autistic person’s perspective. This training also helped staff recognise the different needs that people with autism have as employees and volunteers, and as a result the museum has been able to offer work placements and volunteering opportunities to people that have struggled to get these roles elsewhere.

Keeping an open mind at the recruitment stage is essential says Celyn Gurden-Williams, the head of people development at the Beamish Museum.    

“On the application somebody might write ‘I have autism’ and write nothing else,” she explains. “We would always invite that person in for a chat to see what their interests are, what they would like to do and how they could contribute to the museum.”

As well as inviting applicants in to visit and discuss their needs with a member of staff, the museum asks whether they would prefer to work set days or do tasks in a certain order.  

“One of the things that we are sensitive to is that many people with autism like to have a set routine,” Gurden-Williams says.

The museum has create volunteer roles in research, admin, events, learning, collections and exhibitions, some of which are assisted by a support worker. Some volunteer roles last for a few weeks or months, while others are long-term, giving each individual the opportunities to achieve their goals.  

The Royal Air Force Museum in London works with the charity Ambitious About Autism to offer work placements for children on the autism spectrum. The museum takes students from Ambitious College, one of the charity’s education services, which helps young people with autism access further education and supported employment in their local community.

The museum’s education officer Alison Shean worked with the college to identify areas in which the students could support the museum. And it was decided that they could play a valuable role in setting up the museum's learning activities for visiting school groups.

It worked with the college to create briefing packs for students and college staff. These included photographs of the learning resources and the working environment, as well as health and safety information and the museum’s guide for visitors with autism.

Before each placement, Shean is provided with a profile of each student outlining their likes and dislikes, and information about their communication skills. Students are also supported by at least two specialist college support staff during their time at the museum
“The students benefit from gaining experience of a new environment and meeting new people”, Shean wrote in a blog post about the scheme.

“As well as building new confidence, they are also developing new skills and an understanding of the workplace. The museum benefits by expanding its range of partnerships, improving accessibility and by having the chance to learn from highly trained and experienced special educational needs professionals.

“In addition the work these students do preparing resources for our learning activities makes a real contribution to our schools programme.”

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Wade Jones
28.04.2017, 23:27
Interesting to read this article in creating opportunities for people with Autism, but one key problem that don't address. This article addresses front of house and volunteers, what about opportunities for museum professionals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder? I am currently doing a Museum Studies degree at Newcastle, and I have Asperger's Syndrome.