Visitors at Seven Stories in Newcastle. Credit: Damien Wootten

Creating safe spaces

Nicola Sullivan, 15.03.2017
Autism affects people in different ways but there are traits they all share
A ruler hanging precariously off a desk is as stressful as thinking that a family member has been in a car accident for an individual with autism, according to Daniel Cadey, the autism access development manager at the National Autistic Society.

Autism, a lifelong, developmental disability, affects people in different ways. The example of the ruler demonstrates the extent to which it can impact someone’s daily life.

For someone autism the world can feel overwhelming, causing them to become anxious. The condition can affect their speech and the understanding of language, and they may find it difficult to communicate and relate to other people.

“One of the myths about autism is that everyone is a little bit autistic. They are not,” Cadey says. “We do all have anxiety to a point but it doesn’t affect the way in which we live our everyday lives.”

Symptoms can vary, and there are different autism profiles, including Asperger syndrome and Pathological Demand Avoidance, which are both explained on the National Autistic Society’s website.

“Every autistic person is different but there are traits that they all share,” Cadey says.  “This involves the way they filter sensory aspects – smell, touch, taste, sound and light.”

The National Autistic Society reports that 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, which means the condition affects the lives of 2.8 million people when family members and carers are taken into account.
What can museums do to accommodate autistic visitors?
Museums can be overwhelming and scary places for people with autism. Crowds, flashing lights, unusual objects or sculptures and surprises can be hugely distressing for these visitors.

A report published by the National Autistic Society, based on a survey of 7,000 people with autism, their family members, friends and professionals, has shown that people affected can feel isolated because of poor public understanding of the condition.

The findings showed that:

  • 79% of autistic people and 70% of family members feel socially isolated;
  • 84% of autistic people said people judge them as strange;
  • 50% of autistic people and family members said they are so worried about how people will react to their autism that they sometimes or often don’t go out;
  • 74% of family members said people tut or make disapproving noises about behaviour associated with their child’s autism.

Pre-visit preparation

There are a number of ways that museums can help people with autism prepare for their visit. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of a number of cultural institutions to provide a sensory-friendly map that highlights areas of the venue that are quieter and less crowded or stimulating.

It colour codes spaces that are often loud and crowded, as well as brightly or dimly-lit galleries.

This information can then be used to create a personalised tour, which also incorporates how they will enter and leave the museum as well as places where they can take time out or have a food break.

Rosie Burley, the access and community manager at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which runs regular workshops for autistic children, says that providing autistic children and their families with pictures and videos of the site has proved helpful.  

“We had [a child] who found going through doorways quite difficult so we actually photographed the doorways that he might walk through and he was able to participate in the project. We also made an iPad recording of the routes that he would take in the gallery, and seeing this helped to reduce his anxiety about the visit,” she says.
Safe spaces and relaxed openings
An increasing number of museums offer "safe spaces", where visitors can take time out if they are feeling overwhelmed. These areas, sometimes known as chill out areas, might be are kitted out with beanbags and subdued lighting. Or they can be existing quiet places such as a reading room or library.

Relaxed openings are also an effective way to cater for visitors with autism. These often take place outside normal opening hours, and involve reducing visitor numbers and switching off any flashing lights, videos or interactives that could be overwhelming.

The National Museum of Computing, located in Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, offers a chill-out zone during its relaxed openings.

“Old computers make the worst sounds,” says Clare Marston, the museum’s head of learning. “If people have got specific auditory sensitivity then this will make it awful to be in some of the rooms.”

However, the museum doesn’t used autism-specific language in and around the space because some parents may not have informed their children about their diagnosis. 
Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, offers sensory backpacks for family visitors that include ear defenders.

Like many other museums, it has found that providing workforce training has given staff the confidence to welcome visitors on the autistic spectrum (see case study).

Was this article useful? Become a member of the Museums Association to access our full Museum Practice archive.


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Robin Johnson
Museum Education Consultant
16.03.2017, 12:28
I would like to add that I have been working recently with The Atkinson in Southport who are doing some tremendous work with local autistic children and adults. Their current project "Imagining Autism" is a partnership with the University of Kent - I would recommend that MP readers check it out - its ground-breaking, innovative stuff: