Accommodations for Autistic Visitors and Visitors with Sensory Processing Disorder

Social narratives

Social stories, or social narratives, are a way to explain what to expect in the museum and how to behave in them. This tool is often used for Autistic children and teens, though, if written age-appropriately, can be useful for adults with I.D. or Autistic adults as well.

There are several resources and examples of narratives for visitors, but the ones I found most useful for myself can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accessibility page and the Museum Access Consortium’s page. Notice that there are options for children, teens, and adults, and that these are separate. The language changes in each story, but the content is the same. Tell the reader how to enter the museum. Is there a separate accessible entrance they can use? Does your museum require admission, or for visitors to go through security? Include as many images and as much detail as possible. Use “I” statements. For example, say, “I will go through the main entrance on x street and walk through the front door” rather than “The main entrance is on x street.” Be sure to include any sensory concerns – for example, if the entrance is noisy or bright, indicate that.

Sensory Maps

A sensory map simply explains what type of sensory experiences a person might have in a given place of your museum. Indicate if you have a video or sound installation in one room, or what type of lighting each room has. Is it lit by natural light? Is it dimly lit? If there is natural light, is it filtered through translucent glass or are they transparent? Also indicate what areas of your museum are loud or can get loud – whether that’s because the room echoes, because lots of visitors tend to congregate in a given area, or because a component of the exhibition utilizes sound. It’s also a good idea to indicate which areas are quiet, and tend to get fewer visitors, and indicate it as a good area to take a rest if someone gets overstimulated. Mark areas where one can sit and rest as well, and be sure that your museum has ample seating, no matter how small. You never know what a person’s needs are or how long they’re going to stay, so assume they will stay for a long time and accommodate them accordingly.

Quiet Hours

Offering quiet hours for Autistic visitors is common at children’s museums, but not as much at other institutions. Though having opportunities for Autistic children is important, it is also important to remember that Autistic teens and adults exist, and may want to go to a natural history, art, or science museum, but are overwhelmed by the crowds museums see day-to-day or by lights and sounds found within exhibitions.

Opening up the museum to families and individuals who are Autistic is an excellent accommodation to provide, as they are able to enjoy your collections in a way that is more comfortable to them. Limit harsh lighting and jarring noises, and provide support staff to facilitate your visitors’ experience. Perhaps look into your city’s special education services for support volunteers, or even special education students from your local university (if applicable).

Relaxed Performances/Lectures

Relaxed performances are a great way of being welcoming to guests who may have sensitivities to light and/or sound transitions during performances. These performances are often targeted at only families or for family friendly performances, but could (and should!) be extended to performances intended primarily for adult audiences. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago had a relaxed performance of Beauty and the Beast, featuring performers Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser. During this performance, the house lights of the theater were raised, and guests could leave the theater as they needed during the performance, for whatever reason. Lighting and sound transitions were softened, and quiet areas were set up with volunteers to assist audience members who may have needed support. Many times, people with disabilities feel uncomfortable during live performances because they don’t behave in a way that is considered “acceptable” by other audience members or performers. Relaxed performances allow these guests to feel more comfortable and allow them to more readily access the art or material presented.