Autism in Museums

By Catherine Salthouse

I remember sitting in a middle school library, answering questions about how I would react to student misbehavior. I was terrified. I was about to work with kids with autism for the first time and I had no idea what to do. I accepted the job because I liked teaching teens, I was broke, and nothing could be much worse than night shifts at a postal distribution center. I’m being completely honest when I say that working with teens with autism changed my life.

Dr. Stephen Shore is often quoted for saying, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” For every student, I had to adjust and customize how I facilitated their learning. It was exhausting, but also rewarding. I arranged a field trip to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and I recall one teacher’s shock when I let the students wander the galleries without a worksheet or lecture. But the students had a great time. There were no crowds, loud noises or bright lights, and the students had quiet area to retreat to if necessary. It was free-choice informal learning, just what many museums are designed for. Working with those students made me passionate about welcoming people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into museum spaces and is the reason I went to grad school.

Many museums offer early open events to families with children with autism much like the field trip I described: a regular, often monthly, subdued version of the museum at low or no cost. Lisa Jo Rudy sees these kinds of events as first steps for many museums interested in inclusive initiatives. She has written a passionate book and maintains a blog on this topic. After establishing successful early opens, many museums move beyond autism exclusive events toward more integrated programs. The Transit Museum in Brooklyn and the Intrepid, Sea, Air and Space Museum have some excellent programs.

During an internship at the Pacific Science Center I was able to talk with some staff about their experiences during the early open event. In addition to opening the doors early and turning down the lights, education staff at the Science Center are present at core stations like the tide pool, the planetarium, and the butterfly house to facilitate. They also run a low-key live science show featuring a snake. Everyone I spoke to was glowingly positive about the early open event. Some had attended an accessibility training offered by Partners for Youth with Disability, which made them more confident in their ability to communicate, not just with visitors with autism, but with all guests. Additionally, some felt that because there were fewer people in the museum, they could have longer, more impactful interactions with visitors.

The autism rate is now 1 in 68 children, so this population requires more and more museums to be versed in accommodations and facilitations. There are a few guides, like this one from the Boston Children’s Museum designed to help museums create great programs for visitors with autism, but I have not been able to find anything that deals with the logistical side of things. So that is what I’ve focused my thesis research on – understanding the resources and planning necessary to put on an early open event. I’m still in that process, but I can tell you some things I have discovered.

I looked at the number of listings on Autism Speaks for local support groups and community/recreational activities (which may include museum programs) by state on February 5, 2017. Then I compared this to each state’s population.

*per 10K people with ASD, assuming 1 person with ASD per 68 people.

You can see from the chart that there are 3-7 recreational activities per 10,000 people with ASD in any given WMA state. I think museums can increase that ratio. On the East coast, it is dramatically higher: Delaware (10.7), New York (11.1), Vermont (12), Connecticut (13.3), and New Jersey (15.1) all score over ten. Assuming children with autism are spread evenly through the population, Washington, with its population of 7,277,536, will have over 100,000 children with autism spectrum disorder. Moreover, based on available insurance, a CNN report in 2015 ranked Washington, Oregon, and California among the top 4 best places to live with a child with autism, so it is likely that these states have an even higher saturation of children with autism than the general population.

Working with a new audience can be intimidating- I imagine a lot of museum professionals are terrified of not knowing what to do like I was. But it is worth doing. Reach out to a local advocacy group, coordinate with other museum professionals. Some early open events at museums are collaborations with local university programs, so extensive accessibility training for staff may not be required off the bat. Some museums have an autism day once a year or quarterly before committing to a monthly event.

Resources exist to help you get started.  Museum Access Consortium (MAC) and the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) offer great online resources.

Catherine Salthouse is a Museology M.A. Candidate from the University of Washington. She has put on programs at the Museum of Flight, the Pacific Science Center, and the Cartoon Art Museum and over 3 years experience creating youth programing in other cultural institutions.



Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.