Ellen Lee used to work at the Royal Air Force Museum and now works at the Old Royal Naval College, which is taking on our Autism Friendly Award. She shares her tips and advice for making your museum autism-friendly.

Ellen Lee

In 2014 I project-led the first application for the Autism Access Award for the museum and heritage sector at the Royal Air Force Museum. It was a great opportunity to discover what we were doing well, highlight areas that needed more focus, and learn how to make our venue more autism-friendly. 

It was an insightful journey that led to contacts with other organisations and to new partnerships being formed. In early 2016 I began working at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. So what have I learnt from my experience of the Autism Access Award? 

These are my top tips to help make your museum more autism-friendly:

  • Talk (and listen) to your audience – as venues, we should be listening to our audiences anyway. We need to know what works, but more importantly what doesn’t! Talk to visitors, work with focus groups, use feedback forms or comment cards, or engage with local community groups. 

Feedback is valuable and can help you identify ways that you can improve a trip to your museum for autistic visitors. 

  • Train your staff and volunteers in basic autism awareness – this is not about becoming experts, but about improving our understanding of how we can make visitors feel more welcome. Our venues are for everybody, so break down barriers and make our museums and galleries accessible to all. 
  • Training builds confidence in staff and volunteers who may not have had much experience in engaging with autistic visitors.

Confidence makes for better customer service, which will lead to visitors spreading the word about this welcoming venue they have been to. 

  • Organisations such as The National Autistic Society and Ambitious About Autism offer training, and you may find that there are local providers who do as well.
  • Provide pre-visit information on your website and advertise your offer –  offering pre-visit information is really important for visitors who have never been to your venue before and don’t know what to expect. 
  • Having the information available before they have even stepped out of the door gives visitors the choice to decide which areas are most suitable in your location.

If you highlight that one of your galleries can get very busy, has very bright lighting and has sound installations that are triggered by movement, a visitor may choose not to go that gallery if they think it might cause distress.

  • Images are great as they provide information just as effectively as text. Put information on your website and on Euan’s Guide, which provides disabled access reviews by disabled people for disabled people.
  • If people do not know what you offer, they may not think to visit.
  • Identify a space or room that could be used by visitors experiencing sensory overload who may need somewhere quiet to go – having a quiet private space to rest is so important and highlights your commitment to making your venue autism-friendly.
  • At the Royal Air Force Museum, a room was transformed by a coat of off-white paint and the addition of a dimmer switch – it was not an expensive transition, but it made a difference. This can be just the thing that a parent of an autistic child needs to have a good experience at your museum.
  • Trips can be hard enough without feeling like you are being judged on your child’s reactions to their environment.

having a dedicated space and trained staff and volunteers shows that your venue is autism-friendly.

  • Visit other locations and have a look at their provisions – it might just inspire you!
  • If you can’t provide a room, identify an area that is quieter and less populated than other areas and highlight this as a calm environment. Most importantly, ensure that all of your staff and volunteers are aware of the location of the room or space. It’s no good having it if no-one knows about it!
  • Talk to other venues – sharing experiences and ideas is really important! We all want to make our museums and galleries welcoming to everybody and sharing our ideas is how we can improve.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to other organisations and promote your work to them – we are all working towards the same goals! The Disability Co-operative Network has a website where you can submit case studies to promote projects you have worked on, find out more about the work of other venues and organisations and get up-to-date information.
These tips aren’t the only things you can do, but I hope they inspire you to think about your offer. Small changes can have a big impact, so anything you do to make your museum more autism-friendly is a step in the right direction! Many of your museums are probably already halfway there to becoming autism-friendly, without even realising it.