For many families that are affected by a diagnosis of autism, planning days out to public spaces like the museum and theatre can seem impossible. It is explained, on some level, by persistent concerns around unpredictable behaviour and uncertainty around the level of support available. This reality for children and young people with autism is an enormous tragedy as it deprives them of exposure to cultural activities and new opportunities which feeds the imagination of many who have a creative flair themselves. While the diversion from routines may be too steep an obstacle to overcome for some, I feel from my own personal experiences that a visit to a museum can literally open new worlds and this has made a great difference in my own development.
Hosted very appropriately in the Science Museum, one of the foremost popular free museums to visit in London, I was just one of a series of speakers for the charity Kids in Museums, which helps enable museums across the country to support children and families when they visit. With the focus on autism, it was insightful to have the expertise of Carol Povey of the National Autistic Society (NAS), recommending that autism is not only something to be made aware of, but a culture in which staff and volunteers appreciate the needs that come with it. During the course of the day, a common theme that came out from discussions consisted around the need for appropriate training to ensure those working in public spaces, like museums, are effectively prepared to deal with whatever challenges autism can pose. It was remarked that 28% of families with a child with autism had been asked to leave for various reasons. There is perhaps nothing worse than having oblivious staff/volunteers who become flustered in an event of something like a meltdown, while parents are left anxious without any help.
What was impressive was to see the efforts by the likes of Poole Museum, who themselves took part in the Takeover Challenge last year, inviting young people, including those with autism who may be regarded as having behaviour that challenges, and working to meet their personal needs. This may be as simple as allowing gestures (e.g. thumbs up, nodding) to indicate somebody’s thoughts when communicating. While many museums have diverse needs in terms of their size and capacity, sharing good practice in environments like this event can only help to ensure knowledge is passed along that can be actioned later on. The Science Museum itself offers an Early Birds and Night Owls programme in which families with young children can enter early in the morning and visit the exhibits, without the excess noise of other visitors, and enjoy the sites at their own leisure. Young people over 16 also had the opportunity to attend, by themselves or with an adult, workshops and other seminars after the museum had officially closed. Although this may not be possible for smaller museums, this model could easily be replicated.
For my part, I spoke of the priorities of the three I’s (Interactive, Inclusive and Innovative) as areas in which many museums could improve upon. From my own experience, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of young people of mixed abilities to put on a full exhibition in Dorset County Museum and celebrate the successes of youth clubs in Dorset over a 70 year timeline. This may be an exception in most instances, but as a way to engage with and appreciate the talents of a new generation of people who do not immediately consider these venues as open to their interests; it’s a good example of how things can be changed. When museums present information too, there is always a better way beyond a plain written panel to tell a story, for instance better application of mobile technology and imagery; no venue should exclude their visitors because of their abilities.
Some museums have attempted to be inclusive and autism friendly. The V&A for example, have SENse Family Packs, that are designed to be of use to children with autism when visiting their exhibits. This is a clear example of museums making a good effort towards inclusivity but, there are other venues who only have designated spaces for those with autism and this is not good enough. A much better solution is to provide those children and young people with autism with objects on their walk to keep them occupied, and have on hand staff/volunteers who are well resourced to handle any situation.
There is much work yet to do if museums across the country are to learn from the shared knowledge in the room, but the journey to modernise has never been easy.
Visit the Storify of the day here.
There is also a great blog dedicated to supporting autism in museums.