Welcoming (Back) Autistic Visitors to Museums
Updated: May 9
As museums welcome visitors back through their doors, now is a good time to reflect on how the Covid pandemic has particularly affected engagement with autistic people. Lessons can be learnt from the pandemic negatives which will probably continue in some form for a while. There have been some surprising pandemic positives. It would be a huge shame to get rid of these too. The last two years have been tough for all of us but consider the stress levels if even in normal circumstances you “start each day half-filled with anxiety”.[i] Autism isn’t a mental health problem but 33% of autists have one caused by the difficulties of living in a neurotypical world with inadequate support.[ii] 90% autistic people worried about their mental health during lockdown and 85% say their anxiety levels have got worse.[iii] The pandemic has exacerbated the difficulties in a number of ways. Opportunities for social interaction There’s been a big reduction in social and communicative experiences, particularly for those living in supported/care settings or shielding due to physical vulnerability.[iv] Even before the pandemic, autistic people were seven times more likely to be chronically lonely than the general population.[v] Although introspective time can be important for some autists, it isn’t true that not wanting or needing to be sociable is part of being autistic. Rather, social engagement can be extremely challenging on allistic (non-autistic) terms. I recommend having a mix of in-person and online events and meetings, even when physical meet-ups are possible again. Some autistic people feel more comfortable with digital forms of engagement where the ‘rules’ are simpler, more controlled, and it’s easier to disengage. Online gaming is an area of expansion which can suit autistic participants well and can include live social interaction. Take for example Museum Games which the V&A, IWM and the Natural History Museum are involved with. The growth in museums’ digital offer ranging from podcasts to art workshops, has been spurred on by the need to adapt to Covid restrictions. Britten-Pears Arts and Autism in Nature successfully converted their in-person sessions for autistic children to online interactive presentations in February/March 2021.[vi] These explored coastal soundscapes and used live music. Familiarity and routine Changes to the familiar and loss of routine are particularly difficult for lots of autistic people. Returning to ‘old ways’ will be just as challenging. This is against a backdrop of social support services being suspended or reduced. Events have been cancelled, interactives temporarily switched off, known faces are absent such as the friendly front-of-house (FoH) volunteer who was always there at particular times, and the appearance and rules of sites keep changing to meet Covid-restrictions. Start by making lists of what’s changed at your museum and what’s stayed the same. You’ll need to update these over the coming months and to change your public information accordingly. Make it as visual as you can. Something as cheap and simple as a mobile phone can be used to create a ‘welcome back’ film or a virtual tour put on your museum’s website. Provide up-to-date visual stories for visitors. Boston Children's Museum, USA has produced one for Covid circumstances. You could offer ‘ease back in’ visits for people who haven’t been for a while. This will support the well-being of returning furloughed staff and volunteers, as well as visitors. As always, but particularly during the first few months of re-opening, allow autistic people extra time for adjustment such as when entering a building or passing through different areas. Visual timetables are helpful for school groups.[viii] Point out the features of the visit, such as lunch arrangements, which are the same as at school. As with a welcome film, use good memories to help manage transitions to new experiences. For example, at the start of a school visit, ask children to pause to remember the last time before launching into a new workshop experience. Some will have been with their families rather than their school. Pleasant memories recalled by classmates will help to reassure those for whom the museum is new. Museums can help to create new routines and comforting predictability by programming structured visits and regular events some of which could be ‘relaxed’.[vii] Programme these for the long-term in the knowledge that attendance may take a while to build, particularly while people become accustomed to the ‘new normal’. Rigidity and flexibility Lockdowns have reduced pressure to keep to externally imposed routines like commuting schedules, which some autistic people find difficult. Covid restrictions have demonstrated the possibilities for more flexible use of museum spaces and operating systems. An example is staggered entry negating the need for queues which are problematic for some autists. However, the re-opening of public venues will create new rigidity such as an increased requirement to pre-book. Recent research has shown that venues need to continue to build the confidence of visitors, especially at the point of enquiry.[ix] For example, by offering refunds if people can’t come once they’ve made a booking. Autistic families have to fit in the usual demands of family life with the added unpredictability of autistic members’ needs. They’ll be reluctant to make a commitment if they don’t feel that they can comfortably break it at short notice if they have to. Similarly, Covid restrictions allowing, they’ll be less likely to come if they feel that once inside a venue or at an event, they can’t come and go as needed. Museums are in an excellent position to cover ‘intense’ interests which autistic people often have. Topics favoured by autistic children vary a lot but transport (e.g. All Aboard Club for train-loving Autistic & ADHD children), computers and dinosaurs are common ones. Offer a range of open-ended activities rather than prescribed objectives. Instead of superlative examples for participants to aim towards, encourage participants to use materials freely. For example, it’s fine if someone wants to group or line up Lego bricks rather than make something on a theme -they’re still ‘making’ and enjoying the experience. Holding ‘relaxed’ family events at inconvenient times such as first thing in the morning, teatime, or when children are usually at school might fit in with your museum’s quieter periods but it doesn’t make them truly accessible. You could find that autistic adults enjoy coming to a lecture series at these sorts of times though. Nothing beats asking prospective and existing audiences themselves before you create your programme. Rules Rules are variable in different contexts. The social consequences of transgression can be very damaging for the individual and this causes worry. Autistic people can find contextual rules hard and exhausting to navigate. It can be reassuring when rules are clear, especially if the reasoning is explained. An example in a museum in non-pandemic circumstances would be a ‘please don’t touch’ symbol by an uncased artefact, together with a line explaining why, plus visual invitations to touch tactile interactives. With children and people with Learning Disabilities (LDs), encourage Covid-safe behaviour by emphasising the positive ‘do’s’ more than the negative ‘don’ts’. It’s easier to process. For example, reinforce social distancing by saying “Thank you for stepping back”. You can then repeat the reason why they’ve done well. FoH teams beware: Autists may rigidly comply with rules they ‘get’ but can react strongly if other people don’t! Conversely, some autistic people can’t comply with Covid-safe behaviours and are left traumatised by other people’s fierce reactions to this. Some choose to wear identifiers such as sunflower lanyards but not everyone understands or accepts these.[x] Lack of compliance can be because someone can’t understand or remember the rules. This could apply to children or people with LDs.[xi] This group can also find masks confusing and alarming. Autistic people can find reading faces difficult. Eliminating half the clues with a mask makes the problem worse. Some museums have produced masks printed with facial images reproduced from their statues or portraits. Although witty, I’m unsure if this is helpful. Instead, try using masks with clear panels (useful for lip-readers too) and with wearing badges showing a full-face photograph. There are also sensory reasons for non-compliance. For example, difficulties with body awareness (proprioception) hindering social distancing and heightened sensitivity such as to masks or to hand sanitiser. It’s easy then to imagine how difficult Covid tests can be. Autistic people are legally exempt from wearing masks if they find them challenging, but some struggle to do so for fear of the potential conflict. Complement restrictions with choices. This empowers all visitors and promotes confidence. While it may be necessary now to have a one-way system inside your museum, make it easy for people to get to facilities like toilets without repeating a long, linear route. Also promote their freedom to explore the surrounding grounds. As we know, the visitor experience is as much psychological as physical. Managing emotions and sensory overload Stress is tiring and can lead to heightened emotions. If someone is distressed or dysregulated, they won’t be able to focus and communication will be impeded. Encourage your team to allow more processing time and to adapt to each visitor’s preferred method of communication. There may be more stimming during these difficult times. Sometimes you can see or hear a stim such as fiddling or humming. It’s a natural form of self-regulation which shouldn’t be deterred. Plan for possible heightened to reactions to triggers as a result of the pandemic. For example, to someone coughing or to exhibits associated with death. You could adapt some of the free ‘How I’m feeling’ check-in resources which are available online to help children return to school. This will help you to support positive anticipation. One example is Widgit Back To School Teacher Kit. Some autistic children find identifying emotions difficult, while others are hypersensitive to them, so give such resources as a pre-visit option or use them at the start of a school visit once you’ve spoken to the teacher. When you begin to deliver on site sessions again, some children (not just SEND[xii]) will need more time to return to following expected ‘school behaviours’ such as sitting and listening. It’s worth asking whether initially at least, schools would like to use museum visits as part of the Recovery Curriculum with the emphasis on wellbeing rather than just ‘curriculum catch-up’.[xiii] Information overload Try not to bombard visitors with too much information such as with lots of verbal instructions on arrival or sign overload. Provide it in chunks, keep it simple and avoid potentially confusing jargon. Although new terms such as ‘bubble’ have to some extent become familiar, a common autistic trait is to interpret literally so it’s always best to use direct words and phrases. Enable people to find out in advance. That way, they, their families or teachers can manage the speed and extent of exposure to new information. The need to reassure all visitors over the past year has made some museums improve their online pre-visit information. I’m hoping this continues. Accessible, easy to find (a maximum of 2 clicks from the homepage) access information is the key to getting someone over the threshold for the first time, especially if they anticipate difficulties from past life experiences.[xiv] Provide ways to ask specific questions too. Think sensory 90% of autistic people have sensory differences.[xv] Particularly now, offering sensory kit to calm or distract and a secluded, comfortable, space visitors can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed, will make your museum a more supportive place to be. The downtime between now and when museums re-open offers an excellent opportunity to do a sensory audit. It could result in changes prior to the ‘new normal’ by identifying what you already do well but could advertise better to the autistic community. It will also reveal what you could do better like improving ventilation, or add to such as creating a sensory map. In some places, hand driers (which can provide huge sensory challenges and which have debateable Covid-hygiene) have been replaced by more environmentally-friendly paper towels. Changes like this are worth keeping post-pandemic. Less crowds, less café smells, and less unavoidable sensory experiences/interactives have been good for some, but those with hypo-sensitivity and/or with sensory forms of self-expression have greatly missed museums’ in-person sensory activities. Some museums have adapted or expanded their loans box offer to take into account the extra hygiene and quarantining requirements. Single-use sensory and/or activity packs have been sent, delivered or used on site. An example is Free SEND- Friendly Art Activity Packs: Botanic Garden & Polar Museum, Cambridge. ‘Found’ and improvised resources such as household objects, music, and movement are increasingly being used to complement physical kits and online engagement. Although not aimed at SEND families specifically, 'Jungle Jam' -Partnership between Ipswich Museum & DanceEast is a nice example of this blending. With their Online 3D objects with resources for SEND, MoL has provided another creative option for not being able to see or handle museum objects in person. While some of these innovations have been driven by museums and schools having to temporarily close their buildings, they also cater for people who can never visit or at least find visiting difficult. It would be regressive to lose this provision. Be relaxed Try to use this unique time to reassess the ‘old normal’ to create a new improved one. Many of the suggestions I’ve made will improve accessibility for neurotypical visitors as well as autistic ones, plus your (hopefully) diverse range of volunteers, staff and contractors. I’ve emphasised the particular difficulties faced by autistic visitors but we’re all under strain, so be kind to yourself and your team. One of the best ways is to get training (ask me!) so everyone in your organisation’s hierarchy is more aware and willing to be flexible. Understanding and attitudinal change can be as important as making physical changes to a site. If you’re all relaxed and confident about welcoming autistic visitors, they’re more likely to be too. Many autistic families can’t wait to be (safely) back in museums![xvi] More useful reads Welcoming autistic people: A guide for tourism venues (Visit England & National Autistic Society) Autism in Museums: Welcoming families and young people
Making the Museum Autism Friendly – Best Practice from Around the World The 'EMBED Reopening Recommendation' guidance All links correct as at March 2021.
[i] Robyn Steward, autistic woman, March 2021. [ii] National Autistic Society. [iii] Left Stranded: The Impact of coronavirus on autistic people & their families in the UK. Sep 2020 [iv] A campaign has recently secured early vaccination for UK citizens with learning disabilities. Previously, the inability to understand how to protect oneself and others from Covid-19 has not been fully recognised as a state of vulnerability. [v] National Autistic Society. [vi] By the time you read this, a blog about this project should be available on Blog (autisminmuseums.com) [vii] ‘Relaxed’ opening periods and events are when sensory stimuli are reduced. See my blog ‘How relaxed performances enable people to enjoy a show’. [viii] Most autistic children attend mainstream schools. [ix] January 2021 findings of Insights Alliance Culture Restart research. [x] Indicates a ‘hidden disability’ rather than specifically autism, and does not denote that the wearer is exempt from Covid restrictions. [xi] According to the National Autistic Society, about 50% of autistic people have an LD. [xii] Special Educational Needs and Disability/ies. [xiii] 70% parents say their autistic child has had difficulty doing school work either from home or with reduced in-school support. Around 50% said their autistic child’s academic progress has been suffering. Left Stranded: The Impact of coronavirus on autistic people & their families in the UK. Sep 2020 [xiv] For more about access information on museum websites, see my blog ‘Is your museum’s digital 'shop window’ bringing in people with disabilities or are the 'shutters' down?’. [xv] National Autistic Society. [xvi] Only 14% vulnerable disabled audience members (not all autists consider autism to be a disability) have attended in-person cultural events since July 2020, compared to 27% of non-disabled/vulnerable respondents. Vulnerable disabled audiences were more likely to say that certain safety measures including face coverings, socially distanced seating and temperature checks were essential to their return. Culture Restart Report, March 2020