Engaging families with autistic children in outdoor museum spaces, Natural History Museum, June 2020

By Laura Davison and Marie Hobson, Audience Research and Insight Team, Natural History Museum, London, U.K. audienceresearch@nhm.ac.uk

Children in the gardens at the Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum has embarked on an ambitious project to re-connect people and nature, known as the Urban Nature Project (UNP), through transforming our outdoor spaces and developing a national programme of activity.

To ensure that our redeveloped Gardens and associated family programme will meet the needs of families with autistic children, we conducted observations and interviews with families using our current Wildlife Garden during Dawnosaurs, our early morning opening event for families with children with autism, and sent a post-visit survey.

In collaboration with our Access and Equality Manager, we also ran a focus group with 8 parents of autistic children immediately after a Dawnosaurs event to understand the challenges parents face when visiting outdoor spaces with their families. To facilitate this, one parent participated in the focus group while the other took care of their child/children in our hands-on gallery, Investigate, which we kept opened solely for them. This worked well because the children were able to experience a quieter version of Investigate and parents in the focus group felt comfortable that their children were safe and having fun.

Autism families share their thoughts on outdoor activities.

From this research, we found that many of the needs of this audience are the same as for indoor spaces, such as: structure; highly sensory activities; opportunities to engage as a family (including any neuro-typical siblings); and that there is no ‘one size fits all’.

However, there are additional needs for outdoor spaces. Outdoors, parents are predominantly concerned about security. While they want their child to feel confident to explore, parents explained that their children have little awareness of danger, which poses a greater problem in the outdoors with the presence of roads, ponds etc. Consequently, any outdoor sites should be as secure as possible and clear about where children can explore freely and where there are more risks.

The weather-dependent nature of outdoor activities is problematic as autistic children struggle with cancellations. To avoid this, parents said they tend not to tell their child what activities they may be doing outdoors too far in advance in case they do not go ahead. Therefore, outdoor activities should have a rainy-day plan attached so they can proceed in some form.  

Finally, the outdoors is naturally a sensory experience. For many, touch is incredibly important and enriches engagement so activities should provide ample opportunities for children to touch things safely. However, while some children will enjoy being immersed in different sounds or smells, others will find this overwhelming. To help families decide what works for them, parents need to know where strong sensory elements are located, e.g. through a sensory map.  

These findings will help us develop an outdoor activity programme suitable for families with autistic children in our Gardens. For more findings, see the NHM’s top tips for engaging autistic audiences.

This research was made possible by Jane Samuels (Access and Equality Manager), Ronel Verwoerd (Dawnosaurs Co-ordinator) and Harriet Fink (Learning and Volunteering Programme Manager), the generous support of the Lady Wolfson Foundation and our research participants.


You can find out more about the Natural History Museum’s autism early openings Dawnosaurs here – https://www.nhm.ac.uk/events/dawnosaurs.html

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