We wish to state from the onset of our post that we’re not specialists in learning and developmental disabilities, but rather are advocates for museums becoming more inclusive of diverse groups and individuals. Because the discussions of access and inclusion can be sensitive, we also wish to state that we believe access and inclusion go together; true inclusion can not happen without access.

Recently, an increasing number of museums have been responding to the reality of learning and developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in several ways.

Programming for Children with Disabilities

Based on the results of a simple internet search (“museums and autism”), the most common way for museums to engage with children with ASD appears to be through “separate,” disability-specific, programs. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers special multi-sensory workshops (Discoveries) for children “with a range of abilities and learning styles together with family and friends.” These workshops include “tactile opportunities and art-making activities.”

Other museums offer focused, subject-specific programs. For example, the New York Transit Museum offers an after-school program called Subway Sleuth specifically for kids with a passion for trains and transit. The goal of this 10 week program is to use participants’ passion for trains to help them navigate social experiences with peers.

However, some museums’ organize programs suitable for both kids with or without ASD. For example, the Club Discovery at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, TN is an after-school programs that offers multi-sensory educational experiences for children with and without learning disabilities.

Inclusive Institutions

Other museums take a different approach to engaging with children with ASD, building inclusion into their institutions’ identity. In these cases, access is usually carried out beyond a special program and incorporated into most aspects of the institution. For instance, a museum we found particularly exemplary in this regard is the Children’s Museum of Chicago that believes “an accessible and inclusive museum must address each visitor’s experience – making the museum’s facilities, offices, exhibits, services, programs, and staff welcoming to all.” Through its Accessibility and Inclusion agenda, the museum offers families and caregivers various options to accommodate the needs of their children. For example, the museum provides:

  • Kits developed with The Autism Program of Illinois to help visitors smoothly navigate the museum.
  • Storybooks specially designed to prepare children with developmental disabilities for their museum visit
  • Maps that indicate “noisy areas,” helpful for visitors that need to avoid certain auditory stimulation
  • Sound reducing headphones

In addition to these components that facilitate access, the museum’s staff participates in ongoing training “to better assist visitors with disabilities and their families.”

Conclusion

While we recognize the potential value of ASD-specific programs, we believe true inclusion happens when a museum recognizes and responds to the barriers that keep many individuals and groups in their communities from accessing its resources on a regular basis (i.e., beyond “special” programs) and in a meaningful fashion (i.e., the content accessed is both relevant and suitable to the group or individual). We worry that disability-specific programs keep children with learning and developmental disabilities marginalized. We also recognize the important need to evaluate the impact and success of museums’ access and inclusion strategies. Do programs meet the participants’ needs? Are the various support materials (e.g., maps, storybooks, etc.) helpful? How do families experience the museum space and their interaction with museum staff?

In many cases, museum professionals lack the expertise needed to create flexible programs and spaces suited to the needs of children with learning and developmental disabilities. However, these professionals have the ability to learn, and we’re certain that most would be open to hearing your suggestions for greater access and inclusion. For example, we recently interviewed the Seattle EMP Museum’s new Manager of Youth Programs+Community Outreach who partnered with a local university’s Music Therapy Department to learn how to accommodate children with ASD. This partnership led to a two-week camp and the training of museum staff in best practices for creating a more comfortable and welcoming space for ASD youth.

We firmly believe that partnerships between museums and organizations/professionals with expertise in learning and developmental disabilities are key to inclusion. Such partnerships could, for example, lead to the training of museum staff and docents and the adaptation of existing museum materials to fit the needs of a more diverse range of people.

As we stated at the beginning of this post, access is essential to inclusion. An invitation to attend the museum and engage through a program, event or a space that is meant to serve a previously marginalized group or community is signal of welcome and acknowledgement. Many museums are in pursuit of inclusion. Sharing their successes and strategies, along with creating needed partnerships, will insure that more museums become aware of and take part in this collective progress. Check out our blog in the near future, as we’ll be conducting interviews with community groups serving children with ASD and museum professionals who are working with children with ASD.

In your opinion, what should museums know about youth and children with ASD?
What resources, tools, or organizations should they be aware of? What has been your experience with museums?

Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley run a project and blog, The Incluseum, with the mission to encourage social inclusion in museums. You can contact them at incluseum@gmail.com.