Being a successful museum visitor is a skill to be learned, like riding a horse or climbing a mountain.
By Julie Blair M.N.S. CCC-SLP
Museums are designed to delight and inspire. They are the repositories of our culture. They present our past and our future. They connect us with parts of ourselves that may surprise us. To engage with a museum is to ignite curiosity, to behold wonder, creation, and beauty. Why wouldn’t we want to share this with our children?
But any parent who has ventured into a museum with their child knows that this isn’t how it always plays out. Have you sat on the outside front steps of the museum with your child eating crackers while the other children from your playgroup are joyfully banging on drums, building towers, and digging up hidden treasures? Have you resorted to the bribe of the gift shop at the end of the visit in exchange for good behavior? Have you been scolded by a museum guard for allowing your child to jump off of a bench or climb on a railing? Have you exited a quiet gallery in embarrassment, holding tight to your child who has melted down? All of these experiences are easy to imagine when you are a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Being a successful museum visitor is a skill to be learned, like riding a horse or climbing a mountain. The delight of seeing your child engaged with an exhibit or enthralled by a collection comes with preparation and strategy. The earlier you start the better. Practice leads to success. Sharing this experience with your children is worth making a plan.
Why are children identified with ASD such a great fit for a museum experience?
- Autism is seeing the world through a unique lens. What better place than a museum to explore the unknown and unfamiliar? There are museums large and small in every community. You can choose a museum that is geared towards a special interest or one that engages the senses and imagination through art, sculpture, or gardens.
- It is not unusual for children with characteristics of autism to have unique visual strengths and a keen eye for details. Museums are visual spaces. Patterns, relationships, subtleties of color and form are enticing. The eye of an artist, the eye of a scientist, and the eye of a unique and creative mind begin with observation.
- The fascinating gift of memory. It is not unusual to think that a child with ASD is not paying attention to or enjoying an experience and to have them surprise you days or weeks later with recall of minute and specific details. An experience that seems unremarkable now may connect the dots for future interests and pursuits.
What is it that gets in way of your child engaging, learning, and having fun at a museum?
- A museum visit may be a novel experience. Lack of familiarity and predictability can create anxiety.
- There is likely to be sensory distortion and overload. Small rooms, crowds of people, and loud environments can be difficult to negotiate with a sensory sensitive child.
- Responses may be surprising. It is hard to predict what your child will like and enjoy and what will cause distress and upset.
- Being in groups of other children may cause stress. Museums that are designed to attract families will have a lot of children!
So, what can you do to prepare your child to help overcome these challenges and create a museum visit where everyone goes home inspired and smiling?
Preparation is key. Investigate the museum’s website for information that will inform your plans ahead of time. If this information is not available on the website contact visitor services with an email or a phone call. If you don’t get satisfactory information from visitor services call back and ask to speak to someone in the education department.
- Locate a map to identify the best place to park, bathrooms, food services, and quiet areas like gardens or patios. Is there a special family room for hands-on art making activities?
- What are the best days and times to make a visit? Museums are typically filled with school children in the mornings, but may be quiet in the afternoons. Are there accessible hours when the lights are dimmed and loud noises turned down?
- Does the museum offer any special accommodations? Some museums may offer noise cancelation headphones, sunglasses, or child-friendly art materials. If they don’t, consider bringing your own. Are there tour guides or volunteers that are trained to engage with children with special needs?
- Does the museum’s website have downloadable content? Do they have an app that can be downloaded ahead of time to a mobile devise? Are there videos of the museum on the web? Spend time ahead of your visit looking at pictures with your child of things they might see at the museum. Print out photos and tape them to the refrigerator. Make them into a book for story telling. When your child sees something that they recognize at the museum the “aha” moment is exciting! You have primed the pump for learning. Use these same visual supports for talking about the museum after your trip.
Now that you are at the museum what can you do to create a successful visit?
- Share behavior expectations when you enter the museum. Define them in a way that your child understands. Draw pictures, use written words, or role-play and double check for understanding. It is important that expectations and boundaries are understood and reinforced.
- Security guards are your friends. They know where things are. They know the rules. Is it ok to sit on the floor in front of a statue and draw? Is there a room that has art placed at eye-level for a child? Which are the quietest galleries? Is it ok to take photographs? Where is a good place to sit in the shade and eat a snack?
- Keep your visit short and consider your child’s stamina. Your first visit may not go beyond sitting on the patio and watching the birds. Be attentive to your child’s cues. Begin your exit at the first and not the last sign of fatigue or sensory overload. Use the same transition routines that are used at home or school. Plan for multiple visits rather than seeing everything in one trip. Each visit will be easier as the surroundings become familiar.
- The dreaded meltdown. This is a situation that requires patience and understanding but also quick thinking. Be calm. Change the venue. Head for a drinking fountain, a quieter room or an outdoor space. If you decide to leave is your ticket redeemable for a return visit? Can you leave the museum for a short amount of time and return the same day?
We must advocate for accessibility!
Museums are making an effort to be welcoming and available to all people. Please encourage their efforts. Follow up your museum visit with a letter or an email describing both what you liked and what made your visit challenging. Direct your comments to the Director of Education, as most training and programing efforts are coordinated through the Education Department.
Lisa Jo Rudy has pioneered outstanding work around the topic of “Autism in the Museum”. I have been inspired by and owe a debt of gratitude to her in my work. Please check out her website autisminthemuseum.org for more information and ideas.
Julie Blair M.N.S. CCC-SLP is a speech pathologist with a career dedicated to children identified with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She holds a B. A. degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Communication Disorders and is certified through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Through her volunteer experiences as a school group docent at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu and a volunteer educator at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara, California, she has developed a passion for the museum learning experience. This passion has inspired her to work with museum staff and volunteers to excite and enable them to provide a “curated” experience for children with characteristics on the autism spectrum. If you have ideas or experiences that you would like to share with Julie she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.