Like many families with children who have disabilities, the use of museums and attractions is often hindered by several barriers. What can they do to make visiting more enjoyable?
At Eureka! The National Children’s Museum aims to be as inclusive and welcoming of all children, including those on the autism spectrum. The facility wants everyone there feel comfortable and able to experience quality time with their loved ones playing games or learning together. However, it may be busy at times and this poses a challenge for kids who have specific needs. The ‘Break to Play’ project was designed so that families of children with autism could experience museum-based activities together and enjoy playing at home.
After all, if we want to be part of a vibrant society that encourages understanding and inclusion, should we not also offer them to everyone?
Challenges when visiting museums and attractions
One disabled child in every 100 is diagnosed with autism. Research conducted by the National Autistic Society shows that families affected by autism face particular challenges when visiting museums and attractions:
* Lack of preparation time- Families don’t always make the most of available research time before visiting places
* Limited awareness- Staff often lack knowledge about autism and disability rights legislation
* Limited activity choice- As a result of limited awareness and poor understanding, the range of activities on offer for children with autism may be restricted.
* Redundant facilities. Barriers include inaccessible digital content, physical barriers like stairs, or poorly-lit signage.
5 Tips on how to make visits more enjoyable for children with autism and their families
1) Get there early
Getting to your destination in advance will help you avoid long queues. If your child finds it difficult to handle change, you might even consider preparing them for the trip by visiting beforehand so they can become familiar with the surroundings.
2) Make sure everyone is comfortable
If children are too anxious or stressed at the beginning of the day, this could make it difficult for them to fully enjoy their trip. Toddlers can be nervous about new experiences and older children may feel overwhelmed by crowds of people, noise, or bright lights. Give your child a few minutes before you enter the museum to adjust to the surroundings. Turn off phones, keep visits short and make sure everyone takes regular breaks from walking around if needed.
3) Take advantage of interactive screens and touch-screen technology
Many children with autism love using digital devices, as it gives them a sense of control. Interactive screens can also help to capture their attention and make the visit more exciting for them.
4) Offer your child clear instructions and guidance museum
Visitors should be able to receive clear instructions and guidance from staff, but this becomes even more important when visiting with a child on the autism spectrum.
5) Offer help to parents and careers
If your child is nonverbal or has difficulty communicating their needs, you might want to consider bringing someone along who can interpret for you.
What efforts should museums make?
Challenges remain for everyone, but if museums and attractions are to offer inclusive services they must address them. Here are the 10 areas identified where efforts could be made:
1.Engage families before they arrive
Museums should make it as easy as possible for parents to access information about the facilities on offer including gallery locations, opening times and public transport options. If this is not possible, how else can institutions communicate with families? Use of social media might be one way of contacting visitors who may not wish to give out personal details over the phone or prefer using an accessible digital device rather than pen and paper.
2. Prepare staff to welcome families with autism
Staff needs to be aware of the challenges that people on the spectrum face so they can proactively help visitors enjoy their visit. In our survey, some parents reported being turned away from venues because their child was ‘scary’ or ‘disruptive’. These incidents could have been prevented if staff were better informed about autism and how it affects behaviour. Research shows that adults learn a lot by working closely with children . The museum sector should consider this when recruiting new employees – giving greater opportunities for training to those who have an interest in inclusive services. This would benefit everyone, including children who may gain role models from within museums as well as outside them.
3. Improve access through clear visual information
Good wayfinding is vital for everyone. One parent in our survey said his son ‘reads’ text on floors rather than taking in the information displayed. Museums should consider how people with autism will gain an understanding of their content and design schemes accordingly. This could be particularly important when it comes to digital services that may not have captions or transcripts available online. Are museums making full use of social media? Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can all help institutions engage directly with visitors who may prefer these channels over more formal ones like telephone enquiries.
4. Have a clear behavior policy
A teacher at Cobalt tells us that learning about acceptable social behaviors before visiting galleries is helpful for children with autism . Children learn very quickly; if they experience conflict with other visitors, they may also communicate it back to their parents. Museums and galleries must Nott stereotype people with autism as ‘intruders’ in their spaces . Staff should be trained to recognize and support visitors on the spectrum rather than see them as potential problems. This could ensure that families stay engaged for longer and take more from their visits.
5. Don’t assume children with autism will need help
Allowing students time to explore independently can build confidence; undirected access means some children choose not to bother exploring areas of a museum if they don’t expect it to be relevant or interesting. Museums must balance this with the needs of specific individuals who stand to gain most from guidance such as those who struggle navigating physical spaces or understanding abstract concepts. Nevertheless, autistic people should be able to access the same content as other visitors; it is not realistic to assume that an educational environment will cater for all needs.
6. Consider lighting carefully
Responding well to sensory experiences is known to improve wellbeing and learning. A quiet corner with dimmer lighting might offer respite from bright displays or noises. When planning new construction or renovation, museums could make good use of daylighting; recent research suggests this can also reduce anxiety levels in many people. This needn’t be expensive; simple things like repositioning windows could make a big difference. Wherever possible, museums should strike a balance between light and shade appropriate for different types of activity. We found one parent using headphones to block out audio installations that his child found too much.
7. Realize the benefits of autism-friendly activities
Many museums offer workshops and other interactive sessions to engage young visitors. Parents told us these are sometimes overwhelming for their children who may need time to digest what they’ve learned before moving on. By contrast, minimizing stimuli such as by enclosing a sandpit session would make it more appropriate for some children with autism; this should not be at the expense of other visitors. Museums should think carefully about how long sessions run – families might appreciate shorter introductory experiences like those offered by The Deep in Hull, which could help build interest and confidence for repeat visits.
In conclusion, the Museum offers a variety of experiences that can be tailored to engage children with autism and their families. If you are looking for an engaging activity outside of your home, consider visiting the Eureka! The National Children’s Museum.