How can we make museums more welcoming to those on the autism spectrum?
By Debra Muzikar
This month I had the opportunity to discuss autism accessibility with Beth Redmond-Jones, senior director of public programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT). She is directing a new project at the museum called the Social Stories Spectrum Project.
Beth was motivated to write a grant to fund the project due to the fact that some museums are providing programming for young children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but not for teens or young adults on the spectrum. In fact, there are very few opportunities for this age group to meet and engage with others with ASD. She knows this first hand since her daughter Naomi, who received a late diagnosis of autism at age 15, has the challenge of meeting others with similar interests. Naomi, now 22, has an interest in taxidermy, the Victorian era, and the Sims video game. Naomi is one of 10 adults on the autism spectrum who is participating in the project.
The grant was a long time coming. Beth and her staff have been working on the grant for three years. They were delighted when they found out in September 2016 that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (ILMS) had funded the project.
In preparation, Beth interviewed many young teens and adults on the autism spectrum about why they go, or don’t go, to museums. After doing so, it was clear that there was a need to provide this group with guidance for going to a specific museum, including what they would see and do, which parts of the museum were quiet or loud, and defining visit expectations (i.e. engaging with interpreters, touching or not touching exhibits, etc). Further research showed that many museums created social stories for those with autism, but most are geared toward younger children. “We wanted to make our museum more accessible for adults on the spectrum,” Beth said.
The 10 participants include six males and four females ages 18 to 26. The group is meeting every three weeks over the next year to create social stories targeted for them and their peers. In return for their input, each participant is receiving a free Explorer Pass (thanks to the donation by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership) which gives them free admission to any of the Balboa Park museums for one year. “The grant terms restricted us from paying our participants,” Beth said, “but we felt the Explorer Pass would be a great way to thank them for their dedication to the Social Stories Spectrum Project.” Participants will also have the opportunity to go behind the scenes at many museums to see their collections and work areas.
Questions that the social stories may answer are “How do I purchase a ticket?” and “Where is the front desk located?”
To create the social stories, participants will visit each museum, and utilizing a framework developed by theNAT team, detail their visit and experience, take photos and videos, then learn to edit their social stories using iMovie. They will meet for brainstorming sessions. “The idea of authenticity of experience is important for the project. Beth says, “They are writing the social stories themselves with their peers.”
TheNAT is located in Balboa Park, and is leading this project. It is one of seven museums participating in the Social Stories Spectrum project. The other institutions include the Fleet Science Center, San Diego History Center, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Man, and the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Beth hopes that the participants can forge friendships by working together on this project. “We aren’t going to force anything, but we do have an occupational therapist who specializes in working with individuals on the autism spectrum to support the participants when needed.” Beth said.
The Social Stories Spectrum Project has garnered attention worldwide. “We hope our model will be applied internationally,” Beth says. “I have colleagues in Europe who are very interested in what we are doing.”
Beth hopes to have the social stories on each museum’s websites on their accessibility page during 2017.
“Two of the Balboa Park museums, theNAT and the Fleet Science Center, offer ASD mornings one weekend day a month so that its autistic visitors can enjoy the museum in a less-crowded and quieter time. At theNAThe museum opens an hour earlier for their autistic patrons. offers a quiet room until noon, and shows the movie Ocean Oasis at lower volume and higher light level during this time,” Beth says.
The ASD morning program has received good feedback. One parent reported to Beth that their seven year old with limited verbal ability learned two new words after visiting theNAT during this time. Her two new words are “museum” and “dinosaur.”
The Social Stories Spectrum Project met for the first time last week. The Art of Autism has already heard back from one of its participants, Joel Anderson, who was enthusiastic about his participation in the project.
Social Stories SPECTRUM Project webpage – http://www.sdnhm.org/visit/accessibility/social-stories/
ASD Mornings at theNAT – http://www.sdnhm.org/visit/accessibility/asd-mornings/
Autism Accessibility Mornings at the Fleet – http://www.rhfleet.org/events/autism-accessibility-mornings
Balboa Park Explorer Pass – http://www.balboapark.org/explorer
What are social stories?