Introduction

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. 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 children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children are placed in an unfamiliar environment and are completely outside their daily routine. This can cause anxiety levels to soar.

However, museums can be a great learning resource. They can support existing interests as well as encouraging new ones. The static displays provide an opportunity for children to examine objects carefully without touching them, which might appeal to visual learners. 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. A frank discussion before a visit explaining the needs of the group will make all the difference to a successful trip.

This information sheet provides some possible strategies to make a visit to a museum as enjoyable as possible.

Strategies to help

Anticipate possible sensory difficulties

Identifying potential problems in advance will enable you to reduce stress all round. Tell the children what to expect; keep surprises to a minimum! 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 a child is sensitive to noise. You may need to consider bringing some ear plugs.

The use of 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 a pupil 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 check that you have the most up-to-date information.

Museums can be very crowded. Special exhibitions or activities will boost numbers even further. Large crowds can appear threatening to a child who does not like his personal space to be invaded. 

Explain to pupils who to ask for help or where to go if they get lost to anticipate potential problems. Museum staff are usually keen to help, pupils may like to prepare a question they could ask while in the museum.

Some museums use costumed guides or very life-like wax models to interpret their collections. These can be distressing to some children with ASD. Reassure children and explain why they are there.  

Planning and preparation

The key to minimising anxiety lies in planning and preparation. This will enable you to identify any obvious potential triggers of distress.  First have a look at any publicity material or the website. The next stage is to contact the education officer to arrange a reconnaissance visit. This is absolutely essential to identify potential areas of interest as well as difficulty. Identify beforehand 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 loos and the lunch room as part of any advance visit.

  • Ask for advice on quieter days and times if crowds are likely to be a problem. Generally, the quietest time to arrange a school visit is the very start of term.
  • From the museum's point of view it is helpful if you brief the education officer or museum staff as fully as possible. It should be possible to tailor any activity to your individual requirements. Briefing the museum in advance will help the visit go smoothly. For example, if your party includes children who are very sensitive to noise, it may be possible to turn sound effects off or down for the duration of your visit. 
  • Before the visit discuss what you are going to see and experience.  Prepare handouts or cards for pupils showing the overview of the day. You may like to prepare a visual timetable for pupils including travel, lunch arrangements and any activities they might do. Everyone gets anxious if they do not know what to expect next. Avoid being too prescriptive in case the coach is late or something happens which is out of your control.

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 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 child's experience of everyday life. The contrast of old and new is particularly suited to the museum context.

Children may enjoy putting together a scrapbook to record the experiences of the day. Look out for things that 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 a daunting prospect, with careful planning it can be a really rewarding experience.


Written by The Mary Rose Trust, Portsmouth in partnership with St Anthony's School, Chichester