Back in 2018, Rhondda Heritage Park: Welsh Mining Experience, began a partnership with the National Autistic Society and other local family autism groups. The idea was to be accredited with the Autism Friendly Award by the National Autistic Society (NAS) by making the site more accessible to additional needs groups.
At the beginning, it felt quite daunting as the main attraction on site is an underground tour. Being dark, noisy, and full of industrial machinery, it set initial alarm bells ringing. However, we decided to identify some of the areas on site we needed to improve on: training, our tours, and the lack of a quiet area.
Firstly, we tackled training. We needed all members of staff to be on board with the changes we wanted to make. Every member of staff whether they were back office or front of house completed the Autism Aware Certificate from AutismWales.org. This was completely free and was a great introductory to autism, especially for members of staff who were not aware of it.
We were also fortunate to receive tailored training from NAS and being site specific it allowed us, as a venue, to ask questions in a safe space and understand the difficulties families with autism face from a parent or carers perspective.
Our next step was Autism Friendly Tours! This was a big learning curve for us. We learnt that the best approach is to be flexible and that there is not a one size fits all approach. One part of our tour displays a working winding engine, which powered the cages underground. Once started a very loud siren begins and our initial reaction was to turn the siren off due to the risk of a sensory overload. However, as we found out this does not always need to be the case. Some families were more than happy to experience the sound of the siren once they were made aware whilst others used the time to inform the guides that they did not wish for it to be sounded. We learned that providing as much information in advance of a visit is extremely useful in the visitors determining what to expect when they arrive.
As a site, we listened to families and they told us what they wanted from a visit. This continued into our Autism Friendly Santa Tours at Christmas. We booked off specific evenings and the overall experience allowed families to take part in the tradition of seeing Santa without the formality and at their own pace.
After gaining the Award in 2019, we decided to add a ‘quiet room’ on site. Our first quest was to find a suitable place, for us it was an unused shop that had no interpretation in. It was perfect as it didn’t get much footfall.
We added books, bean bags and comfy chairs. We placed these in the room and made it look inviting, relaxing, and friendly. Creating this room didn’t cost us anything, it was done utilising what we had already on site. While it is not an all singing all dancing professional area it, definitely serves its purpose and is a place where families can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of the museum, if required.
In order to gain the award, we used free training resources, the knowledge of local groups and repurposed what we already had. The biggest achievement for us was a change in mindset and the understanding to help families with autism on our site and being able to sign post them to a place that may make them feel safer. The ability to adapt and flexibility is key!
Esta Lewis, RCTCBC Heritage Service Supervisor