Museums are a great learning resource. They can support existing interests as well as encourage new ones. There has been a revolution in museums over the course of the last 10 years. Many museums have moved away from the traditional concept of glass cases and hushed tones and there has been a move towards interactive displays which involve all the senses.

Visitors are encouraged to touch, smell and listen as well as look and occasionally taste. Hands-on learning is a common feature of the modern museum. While these developments are a positive step towards encouraging active rather than passive learning styles, they can pose difficulties for people with autism.

Static displays provide an opportunity to examine objects carefully without touching them, but for those who prefer a hands-on style, many museums offer some opportunity to handle objects. Interactive displays involving different levels of technology are increasingly common.

Museums are working to become more accessible to everyone. Staff are generally happy to help but do not always know what to do for the best. Don't be afraid to explain your particular needs. A quick phone call to the museum the day before a visit may make all the difference.

This information sheet provides some possible strategies to make a visit to a museum as enjoyable as possible for the whole family.

Strategies to help

Anticipate possible sensory difficulties

Identifying potential problems in advance will enable you to keep stress to a minimum. The more the person with autism knows in advance about the museum environment, the better. Explain why museums have a distinctive environment and certain rules.

Museums are often darker than usual. Light levels are kept low as part of the conservation process. Light can damage some artefacts such as textiles. This unusually dark environment can cause distress, particularly if it is not expected. 

Films, commentaries and various sounds can start without warning if they are activated by visitors. This could trigger a negative reaction if the person with autism is sensitive to noise. You may need to consider bringing some ear plugs or ear defenders.

Bright colours and a high level of interactive displays can result in sensory overload. See if the museum can offer a 'quiet' space to go if the person needs to take a break. 

Other problems

Museums can feel overwhelming in terms of the numbers of artefacts and the scale of the buildings. Try to get hold of a map of the museum. These can often be downloaded from the museum's website. However, exhibitions change from time to time or an area may be unexpectedly closed, so check that you have the most up-to-date information.

Museums can be very crowded, particularly during school holidays and at weekends. Special exhibitions or activities will boost numbers even further. Large crowds can appear threatening to someone who does not like their personal space to be invaded. Museums are generally quieter first thing in the morning, especially at weekends or during the winter season.

Some museums may open early if you ask them to, or will tell you when the quieter times are.  Some museums are now offering ‘Earlybirds’, a special early opening for people with autism to visit. You may need to book on to these- check with the museum.

Some museums use costumed guides or very life-like wax models to interpret their collections.  These can be distressing to some people with autism, so reassurance may be needed with an explanation why they are there.

Planning and preparation

The key to enjoying a visit to a museum lies in planning and preparation.  Have a look at any publicity material or the website to find out as much as possible before the visit.  This will enable you to keep surprises to a minimum.

  • Phone ahead if you have specific questions or, if convenient, make a reconnaissance visit in advance to identify potential areas of interest as well as difficulty. 
  • Identify anything which could cause distress.  For example, some museums display skeletons or masks which you might prefer to avoid. Don't forget to check out the toilets and the cafe as part of any advance visit.
  • Ask for advice on quieter days and times if crowds are likely to be a problem.
  • Find out about the museum environment. Is it dark or noisy?
  • Are there trails or other resources available to help focus attention?
  • Before the visit, discuss what you are going to see and experience.
  • You may like to prepare a visual timetable for the person with autism, including travel, lunch arrangements and what they might do whilst at the museum.
  • If the person is able to understand instruction, tell them what to do in case they lose you. You could show them what a member of the museum staff looks like so they could tell one of them that they have lost you.
  • Museum staff are usually keen to help. The person with autism may like to prepare a question they could ask while in the museum.
  • Check Museum website to see if they have a Visual Story

 

During the visit

If the museum is large or the site is very extensive, you may prefer to confine your visit to one or two areas of particular interest. This approach will allow you to look at particular displays in detail.

Encourage discussion about similarities and differences between the past and the present day. Relate what you are seeing to the person's experience of everyday life. The contrast of old and new is particularly suited to the museum context.
 
The person with autism may enjoy putting together a scrapbook to record the experiences of the day. Look out for things which would help with this. Pick up any promotional material which is available. Buy a few postcards of items of particular interest. Check whether or not the museum allows photographs to be taken. The scrapbook is a good way of reliving a visit to the museum. A DVD guide might be useful before and after a visit.
 
Although a visit to a museum may seem daunting, with a little planning and preparation it can be an enjoyable experience for all the family.

Written by The Mary Rose Trust, Portsmouth in partnership with St Anthony's School, Chichester (updated by the National Autistic Society, 2015)

Further information