A Welcoming Oasis: Museums work to create programs for autistic children and their families
More and more museums are working with educators, trainers, guards, and specialized docents to create programs for autistic children and their families
Last summer, thanks to an innovative new program at the Dallas Museum of Art, nine-year-old Dennis Schultze achieved an important milestone in his life, one that comes easily to most children his age: he went to day camp. “This is the first place I’ve ever been able to drop him off,” says his mother, Rachel Schultze. “The teachers know the language of autism.”
Dennis has benefited from a relatively new and growing effort by the nation’s art museums to embrace children with autism. The programs they offer typically combine studio work with enjoying museum treasures. Often the entire family is welcome to share the experience. “The fit is perfect, because art gives the students a universal form of communication,” says Elizabeth Kerns, director of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida.
Autistic children are sometimes disruptive and difficult to handle—and may elicit hostility from uncomprehending visitors. But if museums open their doors early just for them, the children and their families can relax and enjoy the experience of being around art. “Disabled children can be loud or have a meltdown,” says Laura Lynch, director of education at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York. “It’s really comforting when you can create a safe place where this is allowed.”
For art museums, establishing a welcoming environment takes a concerted effort. Many museums hire specialists in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) to aid in developing curricula and teaching staff educators about the condition. Local autism advocacy groups will often help pilot the new programs and later find participants. Organizations such as Museum Access Consortium in the greater New York area facilitate conferences and panel discussions and assist educators in exchanging information and ideas.
“We do a lot of sharing of information,” says Michelle López, senior coordinator of ArtAccess, a program at the Queens Museum of Art in New York. “We’re all connected.” In Boston, for example, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science, and the Boston Children’s Museum were recently awarded a joint grant to improve access for people on the autism spectrum. Trainers from the Massachusetts chapter of the Autism Society met with educators from all three institutions to help them plan their new programs, and the educators continue to work together.
At the Nassau County museum, accessibility consultant Pearl Rosen helped design a training session and manual for its Autism & the Arts volunteers, who are often teenagers from area high schools fulfilling their community-service requirements. “Sit with the group, talk about your ideas, choices, things you notice,” her manual counsels. “Give compliments, ask opinions, demonstrate being polite and caring… . You will be modeling appropriate normal interaction.”
Working with ASD children requires special preparation. Parents are often offered “social story” sheets to read with their children in advance of a visit. These use simple pictures that explain the experience, from walking in the front door to encountering guards to looking at sculpture to making work in the studio. “There will be lots of people here,” reads part of the Dallas Museum’s social story. “I can touch and feel things in the Young Learners Gallery.”
Most museums report an enthusiastic response to programming for autistic children. “We tried this as an experiment,” Dallas access-program manager Amanda Blake says of her original Autism Awareness Family Celebration, in 2009. “I really had no idea how successful it would be.” Enrollment was limited to 250 for that first event, she reports, “but we had 300 people on a waiting list.” Blake now enrolls 500 for the quarterly gatherings. The museum also offers a summer day camp.