A visit to the theatre can be an exciting outing, but there are also challenges in such a different environment. Here is a short guide on how school staff can make the experience more comfortable and rewarding for a student with autism. You might find it useful to read our information What is autism?
Before your visit
- Tell the theatre when you are booking that you have someone in your party with autism. If there is a chance that you may need some time away from the show during the performance ask for an aisle seat so you can leave the theatre without disturbing other audience members too much.
- Check the theatre’s website to see if there is anything there which could help you to prepare for your visit, such as social stories, or photographs of the inside of the theatre.
- Ask the theatre if they know about our guide to making theatres more autism-friendly. You could email or print it for them ahead of the date of the show so they have time to make any changes.
- If you would like to visit the building before you go to the show, contact the theatre and ask to arrange a convenient time.
- Ask if there is a quiet area at the theatre that you can use if necessary.
- Sensory issues are what cause the most problems for someone with autism attending the theatre. This can range to loudness of sound/music, darkness within the auditorium, sudden noises within the performance, strobe lighting, smells and sound effects. If you have a student who is on the spectrum it may be advisable to contact the theatre manager to ask what is in the show so you can prepare your student and staff before your visit.
On the day
- If you use tools to help with sensory issues (eg ear defenders, or fiddle toys) remember to bring them with you.
- If you have an autism awareness card take it with you so you can quietly say to a neighbour why you or the person you are with may be acting a little differently.
- When you arrive if you feel that your seat is not suitable, ask a member of staff if you can sit somewhere else, and explain why (if the show is full this may not be possible so it’s always advisable to ask about seating when booking).
- If you need assistance talk to an usher and ask for help. Ushers know when the noisy and quiet parts of the show are and will be able to tell you the best time to leave or return to the auditorium without disturbing others.
- If you or the person you are with will need to go to the toilet, try to leave just before the interval starts, as toilets often get very busy during the interval. You may need to tell the usher you plan to do this before the show starts. They will be able to tell you when the interval will start and what stage in the performance would be a good time to leave the auditorium without disturbing other people.
- During the show if the student becomes overwhelmed due to a sensory overload please use the quiet area to help relax before re-entering the auditorium.
What theatres can do
- Theatres are increasingly offering ‘Relaxed performances’ or ‘Autism friendly Performances’ and this should mean that the staff at these theatres have attended an autism awareness session and should be more aware of the needs of those with autism.
- There should be an area which is a quieter zone if a pupil needs to be taken out to ‘chill’ before entering the theatre again. Please ask before the visit to find out where this area is and maybe book seats near that location.
- Theatre staff would like your visit to be enjoyable so please ask if you need any assistance.
Many museums have moved away from the traditional concept of glass cases and hushed tones. 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 pupils with autism.
Static displays provide an opportunity for pupils 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 differing levels of technology are increasingly common.
Museums are working to become more accessible to everyone. Staff are generally keen to help but do not always know what to do for the best.
- Some museums use holograms when travelling through a history storyline which could be distressing.
- Some have members of staff dressed up in costume rather than uniforms in parts of a building.
- Some offer dressing up clothes to children – dressing up can be difficult for some children with autism.
Find out before you visit what it is like where you are visiting so you can prepare the children properly.
Before your visit
- Contact the museum before your trip to explain the needs of the group you are taking.
- Some museums offer hands on experiences and sessions but you may need to book a session for your school well in advance. Contact the Education Team
- Arrange a pre-visit so you are able to plan where you want the children to see. You can take in the needs of the pupils you are taking and avoid any main trigger areas.
- Ask if there is a quieter time of the week when you should book to go so the museum is not so busy.
- Ask if they have a visual story of the building. If not there should be a map which they can either post to you or available on their website.
- Ask if and where sudden noises occur or where there are over bright/dark areas.
- Ask if they have identified quiet areas in case a pupil needs to take a break.
- Ask if there have been any changes to the exhibits from those listed on the map/visual story.
- You may need to consider taking ear defenders for those pupils who are sensitive to sudden loud noises.
Prepare the children
- Prepare the children with a visual story if needed, explain that museums have a distinctive environment and certain rules about touching artefacts.
- There may be changes from light to dark atmospheres as you walk through the museum.
- There can be sudden noises as film commentaries or sound effects as you enter a new area.
- Other visitors may have started a commentary on an exhibit which you will be able to hear and can be a distraction.
- Show the children what a member of staff will be dressed in so they know who to talk to if they are separated from the class.
Visiting a Museum originally written by The Mary Rose Trust, Portsmouth in partnership with St Anthony's School, Chichester.