Lisa Jo Rudy on Making Museums Autism-Friendly
Lisa Jo Rudy is a writer, editor, and autism consultant. She provides consulting and presentations on community inclusion and education for museums, community groups, and parent groups. She developed the website autisminthemuseum.org, a hub of best practices and resources about how to make museums, zoos, aquariums, and other educational settings more inclusive for individuals on the spectrum and their families. This week she shared some of her background with museums, her perspective on their importance, and her mission to make them more accessible to individuals on the spectrum.
I started working in museums years before I met my husband — I love science museums and wanted to be part of one. We met at the science museum, got married, and had kids. So it was natural to bring Tom with us to museums — even before we knew about his autism. Because we love museums of all kinds, we were also willing and able to do the “hard work” of helping Tom to become comfortable in museums, including those that are not naturally kid-friendly. To do this, we brought him to various museums (science, natural history, children’s, and fine art as well as zoos, aquariums, arboreta, and nature centers) for short stints of an hour or less — and allowed him to find those galleries and exhibits he liked best.
For quite a while we simply followed his lead in museums, which allowed him to feel in control and excited about his visits. The art museums were toughest, as they are the least willing to give kids a break relative to any type of behavior other than quiet observation. After a number of visits, however, Tom became super-excited about fine art.
Some of his favorite museum experiences have included the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He is also very into natural history museums. We think this interest comes from his pleasure in observing small details–and the dioramas are a great place to do visual “scavenger hunts.” Of course he also enjoys train museums, and had a good experience on the Intrepid aircraft carrier.
I think museums can be a wonderful place for folks on the spectrum, as they are specifically geared to people who are passionate about particular areas of interest, require little or no social engagement, offer piles of opportunities for visual and hands-on learning, and are predictably the same from visit to visit. They also allow visitors to spend as much or as little time with any exhibit as they choose (within reason), which is ideal for folks on the spectrum. I can’t prove it, but am fairly certain that quite a number of regular visitors to and volunteers at science museums are on the spectrum. Museums are also a great place for people with autism to just enjoy being members of the larger community without having expectations shoved down their throats: it’s all about what interests THEM.
Museums also build on well-established research on types of intelligence. Instead of being geared, as schools are, to verbal/social intelligence, they are geared to visual/spatial/kinesthetic/natural intelligence. In other words, they are better geared to the strengths of people with developmental differences such as autism, adhd, dyslexia, learning disabilities, anxiety, and so forth. Sadly, however, there isn’t a lot of research to support their effectiveness — and I’d love to see such research happen!
That said, I think museums are not a particularly good place for people with really severe autism and cognitive challenges. New settings for those folks can be very stressful, and it may be extremely tough for them to access the experiences as they are designed. IMO, that population would be better served by a carefully structured traveling program that brings selected museum experiences into a known environment.
When I meet with museum professionals, I give them a little info about autism and provide them with simple, low-cost tips for inclusion:
- clear visual schedules and/or visual instructions
- online social stories about coming to and enjoying the museum
- small-group tours/workshops with higher visitor/staff ratios
- shorter experiences
- more hands-on opportunities and less lecturing
- more relaxed rules about moving around, blurting, etc.
- lowered sound/lights in exhibits that include those elements
- opening up for earlier hours or “special” quieter times
- offering leave-and-come-back tickets or discounted memberships so families can enjoy lots of short visits instead of one long visit
Some museums do like to offer “autism only” events and programs. IMO, these are a nice “gateway,” in some cases, but are often a dead end. The events are very different from normal museum experiences, and generally happen once a year — so while it’s a “kind” thing to do, it’s often more meaningful to parents than to the people for whom it is intended. Parents are eager to do “normal” things with autistic kids and siblings, and these events offer that.
When I talk with parents, I usually say:
- choose a museum your autistic family member will enjoy. if he likes science and you like art, suck it up and go to the science museum!
- look on the website for any visual info (photos, maps, schedules, etc.) you can use to create a social story to prep your child
- know the rules and practice them. if there is an unspoken rule about distance from works of art, for instance, role play how far from the work to stand. reiterate no touch rules if there are any.
- choose an uncrowded time to visit (Sunday morning is ideal)
- have a specific idea of exhibits your autistic family member is likely to enjoy, and share the info beforehand. head to those exhibits right away.
- know that you may spend an unusual amount of time around a favorite exhibit, and be okay with that
- try to avoid having multiple kids and one adult, as a single short meltdown could derail your whole exhibit and cause unnecessary stress for all
be flexible with your time; be ok with staying for a short time or hanging around for quite a while
- check the menu or bring food; avoid trying to eat in the restaurant at prime time when school groups are visiting!
- if you think your autistic family member is really interested, consider purchasing a membership so you can come to member events, workshops, and other less crowded, more personal happenings (or come for lots of short visits without spending a lot of money)
Lisa says she hasn’t too often taken advantage of autism-specific programs in museums since they didn’t exist when her son, Tom, was small, and her family didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea as he got older. She says Tom did attend a Discovery Tour at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, which isn’t autism specific, but is intended for adults with disabilities. Some of Tom’s favorite museums include:
- Longwood Gardens in Delaware
- The Museum of Natural History in Washington
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
- The Academy of Natural Sciences, Franklin Institute, and Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia
- The New England Aquarium, Children’s Museum, and Museum of Science in Boston
Lisa Jo Rudy has been writing about autism since 2006. Her work was featured on the About.com website, which has become Verywell.com. You can find some of her articles at https://www.verywell.com/
For more information about her mission to make more museums and public educational settings more autism-friendly, please visit: http://www.autisminthemuseum.org/