Autism in Museums: A Time Of Change

An AIM Guest Blog by Claire Madge

You may have noticed a lot about autism in the news at the moment, World Autism Awareness Week (2-8th April) has just finished and the BBC have been running with an autism season of programmes. “The A-Word”, which has shown how diagnosis and autism can impact a family, and “Employable Me”, showing the reality of employment prospects for people with autism.

Museums have also been getting a lot more involved with autism initiatives and events, with regular early morning openings at the Science Museum, Great North Museum, Manchester Museum and the Museum of London to name just a few.

It has been two years since I first wrote a blog for AIM, that blog focused on some simple, low cost steps to welcoming autism into your museum. These ideas were considered and carried forward on a training day back in February 2016 run by Kids in Museums spreading best practice in welcoming families with autism into the museum.

Claires daughter

The day opened with a keynote speech by Carol Povey, Director for the Centre for Autism, she showed a great short video from the National Autistic Society that could be really useful in training staff and volunteers. She also highlighted some recent research statistics from their ‘Too Much Information’ campaign – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated, 28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public place because of their behaviour associated with autism.

It is obvious that museums have a key role to play in removing the stigma and isolation that autism can bring. She talked of how early opening can act as a transition to visits in normal hours, the use of visual stories and how these can aid autistic visitors who are often visual learners and opening up school education spaces at the weekend to act as a quiet space for visitors.

Once the barriers to visiting can be brought down, Carol told us how autistic visitors to museums can be a really asset as an audience, loyal and focused. Also not leaving out the role autistic volunteers can play, their dedication and engagement can be of huge mutual benefit to museum and volunteer.

Sam Thompson from the Science Museum talked through their programme of events, not only the Early Bird sessions for under 15s, but also their first ‘Night Owls’ event for 16-25 year olds on the spectrum. He highlighted the importance of asking for input from local autism groups and communities. In the case of Night Owls this led to a specialist talk on mobile phone design that they would not have considered putting on but proved very popular on the night.

Autism spectrum

‘5 Minute Blasts’ gave attendees the chance to hear from Rachel Oliver on the use of the Circus Starr app and how this can be used in other cultural venues to reduce anxiety on new experiences. Ellen Lee, formerly of the RAF Museum, shared her top tips including the importance of staff training to increase confidence in dealing with families. She also talked of good customer service, talking to and listing to autism families to see what works well for them.

Trudi Cole from Poole Museums inspired us with tales of her Takeover Day in 2014 that worked with children who had SEN needs through positive discrimination. She shared her tips of not pushing for eye contact, visual prompts, time prompts and the use of hand gestures to aid communication.

Rosie Barns shared photographs from her book ‘Understanding Stanley – Looking through Autism’ based on how her own autistic son sees the world and Jack Welch, Youth Patron of Ambitious About Autism gave a fantastic talk through his own personal experience of museums. He talked about his own involvement with Dorset County Museums in putting on an exhibition and how the young people worked like a focus group helping the museum become more inclusive.

Sally Fort, a freelance trainer, chaired the day and shared her own website with excellent tips and resources.

Since the workshop I have been working with Kids in Museums and Jack Welch to produce a resource to help museums who want to welcome autism families. This resource launched on 4th April and it is a great place to start in getting ideas on how to reach autistic audiences who often feel so isolated. Many tips are low cost and can be taken on even in the financially difficult times that many independent museums are facing.

AIM would like to thank Claire Madge for contributing this post.  You can follow Claire on Twitter at @TinctureOfMuse and her blog can be found here.




Useful Links


World Autism Awareness Week – National Autistic Society 2-8th April –


BBC – Autism Season –


The A-Word –


Employable Me


Science Museum Early Birds –


Museum of London Morning Explorers –


AiM blog – Low costs steps to welcoming autism into your museum –


Kids in Museums workshop Storify –


National Autistic Society video – What is Autism? youtube


National Autistic Society – Too Much Information –


Science Museum – Night Owls – Tincture of Museum’s blog –


Circus Starr App –


Rosie Barnes – Understanding Stanley –


Ambious About Autism – Youth Patrons –


Sally Fort – Museums and Autism –


Kids in Museums Autism Resource –


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