Welcoming autistic visitors

Deborah Mulhearn hears how some museums are working to make their venues less intimidating places for people with autism to visit
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Deborah Mulhearn
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Many museums are nervous of working with people on the autistic spectrum. And many teachers, carers and families with autistic children are wary of taking them to museums.

As a result, children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have little access to the historical, cultural and social learning environments that museums can provide for the population at large. For ASD adults, the situation is even worse.

Museums can be overwhelming and intimidating environments for people with ASD, who number around 1% of the UK population. Noise, bright lights, and unfamiliar places and people can easily distress them.

But with a willingness to tackle these barriers, museums can welcome autistic people as they welcome any other visitor. There are many ways of doing this, from handling sessions to working in stores, and the rewards for everyone are rich and satisfying.

“It’s been a huge learning curve, but our experience with our autistic learners and visitors now informs everything we do, and it’s an ongoing commitment,” says Mary Kinoulty, the head of learning at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

The trust started working with special educational needs schools, particularly ones with a high number of autistic children, in 2005.

“We wanted to ensure our practice and ethos continued to run through the new Mary Rose Museum, which opened last summer,” Kinoulty says. “As we learned about the needs of people on the autistic spectrum, we adapted our working practices accordingly.”

Good preparation

More partnerships with schools and Gateway clubs (for adults with special needs) were built up and the Mary Rose Museum is now known as a museum that caters for people with ASD.

Good preparation is the key, Kinoulty says. “Ideally we visit the school first and take pictures of the museum and the rooms they will be visiting.

"People with ASD can easily become anxious so we are careful that the people who go out to the schools and clubs are the same people they meet when they arrive, even down to wearing the same clothes or costume.

"We agree a programme and stick to it – any changes can be disastrous and could be reflected in their behaviour.”

The trust bought the software that produces symbol-supported text and simple cards are made to accompany visits and sessions.

“It’s important to be clear with your language, both in written and spoken forms – don’t be too wordy,” Kinoulty says. “Every person with autism is different and it depends on the severity as to how much they can engage with activities.

"Sometimes they want to wander round on their own, or with their carer, and that’s fine. It’s about being responsive to their needs.”

The museum also offered work experience to people with autism, where they helped sort out the stockroom. “They had a clear role and came every week, building up a valuable relationship,” explains Kinoulty.

Adam Corsini, an archaeological collections officer at the Museum of London, agrees about the mutual benefits of working with autistic adults. “It can be a calculated risk but one that’s worth taking,” he says.

New approaches to accessibility

The museum ran two schemes involving autistic adults in their 20s and 30s, helping to improve the collections and make them more accessible, via its Volunteer Inclusion Programme at its store, which is the main depository for archaeological collections in London.

One was a 10-week programme that had a mixture of volunteers including students, retired people and adults with learning disabilities including autism. The second was a five-week programme planned solely for an autistic group, and then a further workshop was held at Bromley Museum.

“It may not sound much,” Corsini says, “but changing a bag of dirty pottery that had lain there since the 1960s or 70s, giving the items new labels and bags, and re-archiving them was a simple but satisfying process. Everyone could see the value of what they were doing.”

Staff and volunteers received training from the National Autistic Society (NAS).

“The NAS is keen to engage with museums and can help figure out a way to make it a worthwhile experience for both parties,” Corsini says.

“Thanks to the training, the volunteers with autism fitted well into the team and the reaction from non-autistic people working alongside them was fantastic. Everyone felt they had done a great job.”

A museum store provides a calm, safe environment for autistic people, but Antonia Harland-Lang, community engagement officer at the Museum of Oxford, wanted to push learners a bit further.

As part of English Heritage’s Britain from Above project, she took a group of eight young adults with learning disabilities, two with autism, onto the busy Cowley Road in Oxford to make a film about the people who lived and worked there.

Support for parents

“We had done planned handling sessions with break-out spaces in the museum, which allowed people to duck out of activities if it got too noisy,” Harland-Lang says.

“But this was something different – we were going outside on the street and interviewing shopkeepers. I spoke to shopkeepers in advance, and we had a bell that anyone could ring if things were getting too stressful, or ‘messy’ as one of our learners described the street.

“Everyone completed the project, and one young man with severe ASD came to both follow-up events, which was a big step for him,” Harland-Lang says. “It’s important not to shy away from an idea which may seem a bit risky. It’s given us the confidence to take risks while staying alert to the need for flexibility.”

Families want to have fun, but for families with an autistic child a day out at the museum can pose problems.

At the Science Museum, London, this is addressed by Early Bird sessions, where the museum opens some of its galleries at 8.30am and the general public is held back until 11.15am.

“We wanted to reach even more audiences, especially families that find it hard to access the museum,” explains Kate Mulcahy, special events developer at the Science Museum.

“We were able to provide a more comfortable environment, and it allowed us to do activities impossible in the regular day, such as racing home-made cars down the central ramp and making parachutes.

“We went to see the relaxed performance of the Lion King in the West End, the first of its kind, and saw how they made the environment safe for families with autistic children, with break-out activities in the foyer, for example, and thought about how this considered approach would transfer well to the museum,” Mulcahy continues.

“We can’t change the structure of the building, but we can make it more accessible by adapting events. We can let parents know that they will be looked after, that they won’t have to queue, that we’ve switched off the loud exhibits. Supporting the parents is just as important.”

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist.

More information is available from the National Autistic Society website – www.autism.org.uk – including advice on taking pupils with ASD to a museum


A parent’s point of view

Claire Madge has three children and loves family days out at museums. She blogs at www.tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com, volunteers at her local museum in Bromley and has been a judge for Kids in Museums.

Her eldest daughter, who is nine, is on the autistic spectrum, and the family went to the Science Museum Early Bird session.

“It was wonderful to find it so empty; we could enjoy the space and take time to look at the exhibits without fear of my daughter getting distressed. We want to go out as a family but it can cause problems. In one museum she got very distressed by an audio of birdsong.

What look likes a tantrum can be disastrous for a family with an autistic child. We are not expecting museums to change their whole environment for us, but they can prepare children for what to expect, where the noisiest areas are, where it is light or dark. Just getting to the museum can be difficult for a family with an autistic child.

If you really want to be fully accessible you need to know what the barriers are that stop families attending. What parents want is a bit more understanding. If museum staff are trained it can make all the difference.

For example, I saw a boy getting distressed because the lift was taking ages to arrive. It could have been very awkward, but a security guard, who had been trained, took him to another lift and he was fine. He understood that distraction works well.”

‘Small things make a difference’

Members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra play at the Mary Rose Museum. The Portsmouth museum is known as one that caters to ASD visitors.

Trevor Sapey, the community engagement, outreach and access officer at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, has wide experience of working with autistic visitors and learners.

As well as facilitating museum visits, he takes artefacts and replicas to day centres and clubs where he talks about life on board ship, dressed in costume.

“We have been building relationships for a long time and the local groups know me well. It’s important that they know what to expect and when they see a friendly face it reassures them.

Small things make a difference. People on the spectrum don’t like surprises, so we explain what’s going to happen and how long everything is going to take. Yes, autistic people like the sensory and tactile experience of handling objects, but they don’t like sensory overload.

We put objects away once we have looked at them, so they are not left out on the table distracting people. Just because they don’t make eye contact doesn’t mean they are not listening. They are not being rude, they are processing the information they have been given.

Often in museums they don’t feel welcome, they are subject to stares and tuts, but here, because of our training, which goes right through from the chief executive to volunteers, they are genuinely accepted as any other group.

At first some staff and volunteers found it hard, because we are often working with people with severe behavioural difficulties. One boy was throwing milk bottles, another setting off the fire alarm, for example, and some volunteers walked out because they couldn’t handle it.

But awareness training leading to greater understanding changed our whole outlook and now everyone enjoys the visits.”


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