Modern museums and cultural institutions are designed to be highly stimulating, engaging places. But for almost 230,000 Australians living with autism spectrum disorder, such environments can be loud, strange and overwhelming.
“Autism is characterised by sensory issues, communication issues and behavioural issues, all of which may contribute to less than ideal experiences with any institution, because of the way the institution is set up to receive visitors,” South Australian Museum Community Programs Coordinator Margaret Lloyd explains. “Many museums are crowded, have light effects or too much light, have surprising sounds or background music, all of which may be fine for most visitors but unbearable for some people on the autism spectrum.”
Despite these barriers, museums remain a popular draw for families, and institutions around the world are working to implement early-morning or after-hours experiences tailored to make their collections and experiences as accessible as possible. Drawing inspiration from success stories like the Natural History Museum in London’s ‘Dawnosaurs’ programs, Lloyd and the South Australian Museum have been working to make their institution a more welcoming place.
In March 2018, 90 Museum staff and volunteers attended training with Autism SA, and soon after the Museum signed Autism SA’s Autism Friendly Charter. Working with Autism SA and their counterparts in institutions around Australia and the world, Lloyd and Community Programs Manager Lara Torr have rolled out a pilot program of autism-friendly family mornings that see the Museum open its doors to registered families two hours ahead of the Museum’s usual 10am opening time.
“It gives families a chance to have a quieter experience of the Museum, with a large number of staff members onsite who have completed the Autism Friendly Charter training,” Lloyd explains. “All galleries are open, the Discovery Centre, shop, and café are all open, and we host science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and craft activities. We also provide a relaxing sensory space in the low lighting of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery, and provide noise-cancelling headphones, sensory toys and heavy blankets. Sound and light is altered in special exhibitions and across the Museum, as many people with autism experience sensory overwhelm in large, noisy galleries.”
The first morning coincided with the 2018 Dinosaur Revolution exhibition, and featured dinosaur origami and colouring in, a STEM touch table, a sensory space, and live insects and reptiles in the Museum’s Discovery Centre. The response from the community was resounding. “It booked out within 40 minutes of going online, and the waitlist stretched to about 800 people,” Lloyd says of the event, which required pre-booking but importantly remained free.
The approach is holistic, with every part of the Museum’s operation brought on board from the many security staff who have undertaken training with Autism SA, to the cleaning schedule. “Cleaning staff even modify the cleaning routine for every autism-friendly morning so that we can avoid loud noises such as vacuums or the floor buffer,” she says.
This work also flows back into the Museum’s general experience, such as creating reading material to help parents and children prepare for their visit, which in turn helps to address the unknowns that can pose a significant barrier to entry.
“There are families who struggle to have a fun day out, for whom getting the entire family together for a Museum visit is a dream they’ve pushed aside, who get the space they need at these mornings, in an environment with other similar families,” Lloyd says.
The South Australian Museum’s next autism-friendly family morning will occur on Saturday, August 24 from 8am-10am, details here.
The South Australian Museum is currently asking for support for its autism-friendly family mornings, and for developing free-to-borrow sensory-friendly backpacks and free downloadable pre-visit materials such as a sensory friendly map. To find out how you can help visit samuseum.sa.gov.au/support.
The Adelaide Review is a media partner of the South Australian Museum