Autism and Museums

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Freelancer Jo Gillam has been supporting Chelmsford Museum to improve access for autistic visitors. Here she gives us an introduction to autism and changes museums can make…

World Autism Awareness Week (27th March-2nd April 2017) is a good time to consider how to make your museum more autism-friendly….

30 years ago, my brother was labelled as unfriendly, difficult, and having a ‘mental handicap’. Today, he’s described as having autism plus learning disabilities. Autism is certainly a word that many people recognise now but how many know what it means? How can your museum be more welcoming to people with autism and their families?

What is autism and who can have it?

Autism is a lifelong condition thought to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain development and part of the natural variety among brains. i.e. ‘neurodiversity’. It affects 1 in a 100 people in the UK – women as well as men. There’s no evidence that it’s more prevalent than before or that any ethnic or socio-economic group has a greater propensity to it than others.

Autism isn’t a learning difficulty, a learning disability, or a mental health problem. Some people with autism do have mental health issues, not least because they can find life extremely stressful. About 50% of people with autism have a learning disability. Sometimes this is severe but all people with autism can learn and develop with the right support. About 10% of people with autism have high intelligence (the preferred term is ‘high functioning’). Until recently, this was diagnosed as Asperger syndrome which is a term still commonly used. For some, far from being a disorder or disability, autism offers valuable abilities and unique perceptions. Examples of exceptional autistic contributors to society almost certainly include Mozart, Einstein and Turing.

How does autism affect everyday life?

Autism affects how a person processes information, relates to others, makes sense of the world and how they experience it through their senses. To people who don’t have autism, these differences are invisible. What they notice is behaviour caused by the difficulties created by a mis-match between autistic differences and the surrounding world. How people react to this behaviour makes a big difference to the emotional well-being of people with autism, who often feel excluded from social activities.

How can your museum help people with autism?

Some of the most effective changes you can make are also the cheapest!

  • Promote patience and understanding when someone behaves unexpectedly in your museum.
  • Limit the number of questions you ask and allow more time than may seem comfortable for the person to reply.
  • Be direct. People with autism commonly take things literally so try not to cause confusion by using statements like “I’ll be back in a second”.
  • Don’t feel offended if someone doesn’t engage with your friendly small talk as this is something people with autism can find uncomfortable.

Parents often feel that they are judged to be inadequate when their autistic child has a meltdown. The real reason may be that the child is being overloaded with sensory input. For an insight into how this feels, take a look at this powerful little film made by the National Autistic Society (NAS): Too Much Information

Small changes to your museum can make a big difference and help other visitors at the same time.

It can seem daunting to make your museum more autism-friendly, when autism is so diverse. After all, how do you manage hypo (low) sensitivity and hyper (high) sensitivity to certain stimuli such as light and sound within the same venue? The answer is flexibility and choice.

  • Make your light and volume settings adjustable. If this isn’t possible yet, provide visual and written information so that visitors can seek out or avoid particular areas.
  • Advertise times when your museum is most quiet or open it for special Early Bird/Night Owl sessions when you turn down/off some sensory experiences.
  • Ideally, offer a low sensory area where someone who feels overloaded can take a break.
  • Loan relaxing objects like stress balls and stimulating, sensory kits which can be carried around.

Most visitors or their carers will know what they find challenging and may bring their own aids such as ear defenders. At Chelmsford Museum, we offer free pairs just in case.

Changes made to help visitors with autism, often improve conditions for other people with access needs. Avoiding ‘busy’ floor or wall patterns, for example, also helps people who suffer from certain visual impairments, dementia, epilepsy or migraines.

Full and honest pre-visit information can be a key to unlocking future visits

Potential visitors with particular needs can come to expect poor access and so not consider coming. Consequently, providing clear, accessible pre-visit information (and advertising this) is crucial. For people with autism, who often find breaks from routine and unfamiliar situations intimidating, having floor plans, images and outlines of what they can expect at a museum, can make the difference between whether or not they visit.

Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum (London) are leading the way in autism accessibility. These and other examples are listed by blogger Tincture of Museum.

On a smaller scale, Chelmsford Museum is developing its own resources aimed at visitors with autism and their families. We’re working towards achieving the NAS’s Autism Friendly Award. I’m teaching the team how they can make the museum more autism-friendly and would be delighted to provide training elsewhere. We’re also holding an event for World Autism Awareness Day (1pm-4pm 2nd April 2017) aimed at everyone. It would be great to see you there!

For further information, try these organisations:

The National Autistic Society | – NAS

Autism in museums | Network Autism

Ambitious about Autism

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Jo Gillam, Freelance Heritage Professional

Mob 07754 130145   

Email: 1joprice@gmail.com

Twitter: @1accessforall

If you would like to learn more about how your museum can support people with autism, Jo will be talking about her work with Chelmsford at this event in June.