Museums are failing if they don’t represent neurodivergent people - Museums Association

Museums are failing if they don’t represent neurodivergent people

Equitable provision must become a reality, says Justine Reilly
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Justine Reilly

In 2020, we created the Neurodiverse Museum. Its aim was to transform how museums respond to, and work with, neurodivergent people.

We noticed, as a neurodivergent-led organisation, that although the sector wanted to tackle discrimination towards neurodivergent people in museums, it didn’t really know how to do it. 

We started to see museums undertaking activity they thought might be addressing needs, but which often just further excluded and nodded dangerously towards tokenism. 

The Neurodiverse Museum was born to effect system change: to demystify who neurodivergent people are, identify their needs, remove stereotypes and support the sector to create equitable access, representation and workforce opportunities. 

Museums are a mirror to society – if we can’t effectively work with, understand and represent neurodivergent people, we’re failing in one of our key reasons for being. 

The Neurodiverse Museum is not a physical museum, but a model for the museum sector to approach neurodiversity. Underpinning what we do is the concept of “nothing about us without us”. We run the Museums and Neurodiversity Network to inform our work.


Our activity is based on the social model of disability, which recognises that the barriers to accessing museums are often found within the services themselves. And we aim for equitable provision – we’ve found the term “inclusivity” too often forgets that a seat at the table doesn’t mean you get to eat.

About 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent – an umbrella term for a range of different brain types including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Neurodivergent people are hugely important to the economic development and resilience of society – and that includes museums – both as consumers and within the workforce.

We think differently, we have strategic brains and we work in different ways to the neuro-majority. 

This means that, on a purely economic and business case basis, if museums ignore or misunderstand the needs of neurodivergent people, it impacts on their ability to be resilient.

So even without the ethical and legal imperatives (many neurodivergent people are covered by the Equality Act 2010), museums need neurodivergent people. 


To help change happen, we’ve created the Principles for Museums and Neurodiversity. The principles operate on two levels – the basics every museum should have in place, and the next steps to becoming equitable for neurodivergent people. They are underpinned by three pillars: 

  • The accessibility of museums for neurodivergent people: how museums understand and meet the needs of neurodivergent people in terms of accessing buildings and services.
  • The representation of neurodivergent people within museums: when a neurodivergent person visits a museum, do they see themselves reflected? And whose voice underpins that representation? 
  • Neurodivergent people in the workforce: as paid professionals and as volunteers. How are neurodivergent people’s needs understood and catered for in the application process, the interview process and once in post? 

We are inundated with requests from the sector for support, training, and advice and guidance. But we need capacity to meet these requests – and for that we need funding.

Accessing funding is one of the biggest concerns raised in the Museums and Neurodiversity Network, and it’s definitely been our experience. 

The way in which the Neurodiverse Museum is currently being delivered is everything we tell museums not to do – unpaid volunteer consultants being used for our expertise as neurodivergent people, and asked to take a thank-you as payment.

But we’re running it as neurodivergent folk, and that means we need different systems in place to access funding. 


If we really want museums to be anti-ableist, we have to seriously think about what that means and how we can achieve it.  

Our aim is for every museum organisation, policy maker and museum director to sign up to the principles, and for the Neurodiverse Museum to have the training and support in place to help make it a reality.

Justine Reilly is the director of the Neurodiverse Museum

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