In September of 2020 I handed in what, in hindsight, seems like an inevitable piece of work. It was my dissertation for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester, examining what the adult autistic community required from museums in order to make them more accessible.
I essentially grew up in and around heritage sites – my family were National Trust, English Heritage, and Cadw members and always visited a museum when visiting a new town. As much as I loved them, there were times, particularly when these places were loud, or bright, or crowded, that I felt physically ill, or had panic attacks, for no apparent reason.
At 22, I was diagnosed as autistic. A lot of things suddenly made a lot of sense, including these incidents. However, there wasn’t really anything that I could do in terms of accessing museums in a more autism-friendly way. What provisions existed were firmly for “autistic children and their families”.
I began my own research into this issue before starting my degree – my autistic brain can’t really let anything go – and found that this was not an issue local to me, with even autism organisations seeming to forget that autistic people may need accommodations above the age of 18 in places other than work. And so when I began my dissertation this year, I decided to ask autistic adults what they had been able to access before, and what they would want.
The results of my survey of around 350 autistic adults matched my own experience: some museums had quiet rooms, and a few sensory tools that could be asked for if they were already known about, but the majority only provided accessibility tools for autistic children (mostly in the form of quiet or “relaxed” early openings), if at all.
This contrasted heavily with what the survey respondents thought museums should provide in order to be more accessible, which can be summarised as:
- Information on what to expect
- Lights not to bright or changing too suddenly
- No unavoidable loud noises
- Information on when the museum is quietest
- Provision of sensory refuge or “quiet rooms”
It was clear from my research that, these five things would be a significant step towards a museum which is truly accessible to the autistic community, without restricting us to only visiting during the one morning a month when some museums choose to make themselves accessible.
I say this not to judge museums, as even points 2,3, and 5 would involve significant changes to the existing layout of certain museums, but rather to show how small things can make a big difference to a largely ignored segment of the museum-going population.
My full dissertation, including full autism access policy recommendations, is available at https://1drv.ms/b/s!Atcm1q-NfrDaakuTuOma0cZGCYc?e=VNFu3p