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Welcoming Families and Young People With Autism Training

Kids in Museums have written a blog on the ‘Welcoming Families and Young People with Autism’ training sessions that MGS ran in May 2021, in partnership with Claire Madge, founder of Autism in Museums.

Kids in Museums aims to make museums excellent places for children, young people and families to visit. We want all museums to be welcoming, accessible and fun.

In May 2021, we ran two half-days virtual ‘Welcoming families and young people with autism’ training sessions, in partnership with Claire Madge, Founder of Autism in Museums, and Museums Galleries Scotland. As well as hearing Claire’s experiences as a parent of autistic children, we also heard inspiring case studies from the Museum of Scottish LighthousesNational Museums Scotland, and Devil’s Porridge Museum.

The National Autistic Society defines autism as a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people, and how they experience the world around them. It is estimated that there are 700,000 autistic people in the UK and that including their families, autism impacts 2.8 million people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 28% of autistic people said they have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism. Awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism can make a big difference to autistic visitors.

Day one began with an exploration of how someone who is autistic may experience a visit to a museum. This included insights from Alastair Ritchie, a young person currently undertaking a Scottish Vocational Qualification at the Devil’s Porridge Museum.

In the break, delegates were invited to explore their physical surroundings, noting things like sounds, smells, different light levels and whether they were hot or cold. The National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information video helps to explain what happens when an autistic child experiences sensory overload when they are in a public space like a museum.

Although museums can make changes to their provision to support visits from families and young people on the autism spectrum and minimise sensory overload, some aspects can be difficult to alter. All the speakers talked about the importance of creating easy-to-find pre-visit resources on their websites, such as visual stories and sensory maps, which explain what you will encounter on a visit.

Anna Downie, Community Engagement Officer at the National Museums Scotland spoke about developing their sensory map with autistic families. They have found that their map has also been useful for other groups to use before a visit through feedback from people living with dementia and people who are blind or partially sighted.

Anna states: “If you are looking to create a map of your venue, I would recommend exploring it with the visitors you are creating it for. We accompanied several local families with autistic children on visits, mapping out the sensory experiences with them and recording what other information would be useful, such as highlighting a quiet picnic space.  We learnt a lot about our venue and our visitors’ experiences.”

Lynda McGuigan, Museum Manager and Michael Strachan, Collections Manager at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses talked about gaining the Autism Friendly Award. An autistic member of staff helped them to develop their autism friendly pack. One of the other key aspects of gaining their award was the autism training all their staff received. Lynda says: “It’s really important that I trained everyone from guides to the kitchen staff.”

Finally, we heard from Judith Hewitt, Manager of the Devil’s Porridge Museum. Judith talked about how they support autistic volunteers at the museum. This included hearing about Alastair’s journey from volunteer to paid member of staff, whilst undertaking his SVQ with the museum. This case study really highlighted that children do not stop being autistic when they grow up and there are lots of ways to support autistic young people and adults.

Judith mentions: “We have several volunteers at the Devil’s Porridge Museum who are on the autistic spectrum, and they are valued members of our team. We try to be as understanding and inclusive as possible and responsive to the needs of the individual. I think the most important thing is to listen and to care – we don’t always get it right, but we do try and that goes a long way.”

In summer 2020 after the first lockdown, Kids in Museums worked with Autism in Museums and Sam Bowen from SEND in Museums to survey families with children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) about what they needed from museums as they started to reopen. Reflecting on pre-pandemic visits to museums, 43% of families felt that museums were not hands-on enough and 71% of families reported that they were too crowded to visit.

Claire suggests: “The restrictions to visitor numbers that social distancing demands actually means many autistic families are able to visit museums for the first time and benefit from the quieter, calmer atmosphere.

“It is also important to think about providing an opportunity to get ‘hands on’ during a visit. Tactile experiences are a really important way for autistic children to learn, incorporating sensory backpacks that can be cleaned or quarantined after use is a really good option.

“Many museums and heritage venues have fantastic outside spaces. Developing sensory trails or outdoor activities can also be a way to engage families who are still reluctant to return to indoor visits.”

For more insights from Claire and advice on how you can support autistic visitors to your museum, visit the Autism in Museums website.

You can also find more support on the Kids in Museums website, including an Autism in Museums blog and online resource.

If you would like to discuss or learn more about our future training and knowledge exchange events, contact MGS’s Learning and Engagement Manager Loretta Mordi