Undertaking socially inclusive endeavors should begin with a deep desire to serve broader segments of the population, followed by research into existing resources, examples, best practices, etc. However, locating this information can sometimes be challenging and time-consuming. Today, we are excited to have Lisa Jo Rudy, a museum writer, a consultant, and the parent of a teenaged son with an autism spectrum disorder, share with us her new project, Autism in the Museum. This website will serve as “a clearinghouse of best practices, models, ideas, resources and research about making museums, zoos, aquariums and other informal educational settings both welcoming and inclusive for people with autism and their families,” and help you locate the information you and your museum need to work with individuals on the autism spectrum.
“The Autism Spectrum” is a useless term. It describes people who are chatty and bright; nonverbal with severe cognitive challenges; aggressive and angry; warm and easy going. It includes people who are uniquely talented, and people who have very few talents at all. What all these people have in common are “social communication deficits” – but don’t we all? In fact, as of 2012, the CDC announced that 1:88 people are on the autism spectrum, and that number continues to grow.
With such a wide range of people described under one umbrella term, how do you make your museum or informal educational setting fully inclusive?
The reality is that you probably won’t. There will always be people with autism who either can’t or won’t be included in a museum setting – except under the most carefully planned and orchestrated circumstances. And, since most museums are strapped for staff, training opportunities, resources, and money, it’s unlikely that such circumstances will be first on your list.
So let’s consider that very large group of people with autism who can be – and want to be – included. Who learn through repetition, through pictures and sounds, through hands-on discovery. Who prefer to focus intensely on areas of particular interest, rather than on “general education.” Who find typical forms of socialization to be difficult and confusing, but who enjoy sharing favorite topics with like-minded people.
In other words, museum visitors who stand to gain tremendously from real, continuous engagement in museum exhibits, programs, workshops, camps, volunteerism, and more. And whose involvement is likely to benefit the museum as well.
People with autism spend their school and work days learning to be as “typical “as possible. Museums, though, are all about passions and unique abilities. The child whose fascination with outer space sabotages could see his English grades thrive and even take a leadership role in a planetarium setting. The teen or adult whose artistic abilities far outshine her ability to converse with peers could develop her talents, interests and understanding of visual media in an art museum setting. The possibilities are endless, given the right resources, settings, knowledge, and willingness to learn on all sides.
In just the past few years, interest in including individuals with autism spectrum disorders in museums has grown – and so has grant funding. A staff-training and program-development project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services is now underway in Boston, and an IMLS-funded project is getting started in Philadelphia. Corporate and foundation-funded autism access events are taking place across the country. Google “autism museum” and you’ll find dozens of such happenings. If you’re considering access or inclusion for your museum, you’re in the right place at the right time.
But there’s a problem. Despite all the projects, interest, and outreach – there is no centralized location where museum professionals, parents, or individuals with autism can find out what’s going on, who’s done what, what tools and resources are available, or what models are working. Is it best to create an “autism only” event, or to create online materials to make visiting easier during ordinary museum hours? And, most importantly, how can museums become more welcoming and inclusive on a tight budget?
To provide a clearinghouse of information about autism in informal educational settings, I’ve created a new website: www.autisminthemuseum.org. This site is a start, not a finished product. It contains information about the autism spectrum, ideas for creating accessible and/or inclusive museums and programs, links to existing models, and links to resources, templates, and tools. It’s intended to support the needs of all sorts of informal educational settings – not just formal “museums,” but also nature centers, afterschool programs, aquariums, zoos, parks, and cultural centers.
Because the site has no funding (so far), it does not contain forums or other tools for interactivity – though my hope, of course, is to build on the basic model to create a more useful tool for learning, training, and sharing ideas and successes. More importantly, perhaps, I am hoping to attract the interest of teens and adults on the autism spectrum – and their parents and teachers – so that they can provide insights and ideas, answer questions, and more.
You are invited to visit www.autisminthemuseum.org, share your ideas, and suggest additional resources. Please be in touch if you have thoughts to share!
Lisa Jo Rudy is a museum writer and consultant based in Falmouth, Mass. She developed and wrote the about.com “Guide to Autism “(autism.about.com), a New York Times Company website, and is the author of Get Out, Explore and Have Fun: How Families of Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome Can Get the Most of Community Activities. Rudy is presently working on a guide to autism inclusion for community organizations and on grant-funded inclusion projects at museums in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Her other sites include www.authenticinclusion.org and www.lisajorudy.com.