Giacometti participation project with Oak Lodge School, image by Hazel Basran

Enhancing the museum experience for visitors with autism

Nicola Sullivan, 15.03.2017
Offering targeted events and activities
There is a lot more to engaging visitors on the autism spectrum in arts and culture than introducing practical measures that enable them a problem-free visit to a museum.

An increasing number of institutions offer comprehensive programmes of events and activities that are directly linked to their collections and displays.

For the past eight years, London’s National Portrait Gallery has run a project called Musical Portraits, which gets participants with autism or Asperger’s syndrome to create music that is inspired by the paintings in its collection.

The children work with a professional composer and Ignite, a musical ensemble formed by Wigmore Hall recital venue. At the end of the two-day project, they and their families or friends get the chance to go and see their creations performed live at the gallery’s Friday lates.

Some of the children taking part are quite isolated, so the programme offers them a chance to make social connections.

“We have some amazing feedback,” says Rosie Burley, the access and community manager at the National Portrait Gallery. “We had a 12-year-old say that it was the first time they had ever made a friend.”

The gallery delivers the project in conjunction with Turtle Key Arts, which manages the recruitment of workshop participants and creates a profile of the needs of each individual.

This is led by parents, who provide guidance on their child’s behaviour as well as things they like or don’t like, Burley says.

Staff training covers a number of different areas, including meltdown management, what to do in an emergency and how to communicate clearly with the children, who are sometimes confused by cliches or metaphors.  

“We know you have to be really literal and have a structured programme, which we present on a flipchart at the beginning of the day so they know exactly what to expect,” Burley says.

At the moment Musical Projects is primarily funded using the individual budgets of Turtle Arts, Wigmore Hall and the National Portrait Gallery, but there is talk putting in a joint funding bid to an external funder.

The National Alliance for Museums Health and Wellbeing provides further information on funding streams museums can access for wellbeing projects, including those that relate to autism.

Last year the National Portrait Gallery also ran an outreach project connected to its Giacometti: Pure Presence exhibition for disabled GCSE-age students from two London schools.

There were students from Drumbeat School for children and young people with autistic spectrum disorder in Brockley, and from Oak Lodge School for students with hearing, speech, language and communication needs.

The project, which was sponsored by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, aimed to open students up to new artistic approaches, and culminated in a public display of their work, featuring colourful drawings and sculptures made out of materials such as clay, foil, Blu-Tack, and household objects.

Running stimulating activities for children with autism does not have to involve a big budget or corporate sponsor. The Senhouse Roman Museum in Cumbria runs activities during the evening when it is closed to the general public.

These activities are varied in order to cater for the fact that some children with autism have short attention spans. They include a handling collection, craft activities, painting, clay work and storytelling.

The museum had to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the activities, including an audit of the site to ensure it was safe for children, allocating the library as a quiet space, and allowing food to be eaten on site.

Manchester Art Gallery runs free monthly sessions for children with autism between the ages of five and 16. These involve exploring the art collection in a calm and quiet environment, using materials to make connections with different senses, and informal sensory workshops.

Apps and games can also enhance the visitor experience, whether they are geared towards those on the autism spectrum or not. Claire Madge, a museum blogger and volunteer whose daughter has autistic spectrum disorder, recommends Cutty Sark’s Gamar app, which involves lining up items on the ship with an iPad.

“For us it is not necessarily a specific autism app,” she says. “Actually, any app or game seems to help with anxiety because it is a useful distraction.”

Elsewhere, Infiniteach creates apps for American museums to help those on the autism spectrum plan their visit and create customised schedules.   

Museums can also look to other areas of the cultural sector for good examples of new technology. An app called Show and Tell developed by Circus Starr tells an interactive visual story that helps children with autism familiarise themselves with the circus experience before they go, helping reduce the anxiety of an unknown experience.

Some museums use Makaton – a language programme using signs and symbols to help people to communicate – on text panels. This can be particularly useful for those on the autism spectrum that have difficulties with language.

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


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Jocelyn Goddard
Heritage Consultant, Cultural Consulting Network
17.03.2017, 10:36
I am very pleased that museums and galleries are taking an interest in autism. I think we also need to think carefully about the words we use - coincidentally, a teacher of autistic children has recently expressed concern to me about the use of "meltdown" in a professional context as in this article. Also, this article seems to be about children, despite the title?