Since beginning my MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at UCL Institute Of Education, my focus has been on cultural access and inclusion. This is partly due to working with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) individuals in a professional capacity, but primarily due to my sister’s additional needs, including autism, having significantly shaped my worldview.
When it came to selecting a dissertation subject in June 2020, I found it virtually impossible not to address the Covid-19 pandemic; specifically, its ongoing impact on museum accessibility for autistic adults. Although accessible opportunities for autistic audiences are increasingly prevalent, largely owing to Autism in Museums, they are hardly widespread. Certainly, most autism-friendly programming tends to be devised with families and young people in mind, rather than autistic adults. Regrettably, Covid-19 has only exacerbated existing inequalities.
Research was conducted through both theoretical investigation and first-hand data collected from interviews with museum professionals and a questionnaire for autistic adult audiences. The questionnaire responses were particularly informative since they voiced the priorities and concerns of autistic adults regarding museum visits in the Covid-19 climate.
The ultimate aim of the dissertation was to compile recommendations supporting the sector’s appropriate and meaningful engagement with autistic adult audiences in the ‘new normal’. These are summarised below, with a more detailed version, including relevant resources, available here.
- Maintain and adapt existing accessible facilities
This comprises online pre-visit information detailing the institution’s access services, along with visual stories and sensory maps, on-site accessible resources, and inclusive feedback channels. Institutions might also consider introducing the Sunflower Lanyard Scheme, as well as providing ‘chill out’ areas. Pre-Covid-19, some museums were beginning to host ‘relaxed’ sessions whereby environmental measures are taken supporting visitors with sensory sensitivities.
- Prioritise the voices of autistic people by collaborating with relevant stakeholders and organisations
Any decisions made about autistic visitors should be made in consultation with this audience. Such partnerships should be mutually beneficial, with the partner’s needs promoted on par with (or beyond) the institution’s. Furthermore, organisations should support systemic inclusion by offering work experience to diverse audiences, and championing inclusive recruitment.
- Exercise a blended approach to programming
It is imperative that those unable to physically visit museums are equitably catered for. This means exercising a ‘blended’ approach that incorporates in-person and remote engagement, the latter being digital and non-digital. Offering a ‘suite’ of resources enables institutions to reach a wider audience, including some disabled and more vulnerable groups who may continue shielding for months to come.
- Develop programming that is autism-inclusive, rather than autism-specific
Programming should be inclusive of autistic audiences, without segregating them or omitting others who might equally benefit from environmental adjustments and/or additional provisions. This is particularly apposite regarding ‘relaxed’ sessions and should be reflected in marketing language.
- Update institutional websites with clear, accessible guidance about Covid-19 health and safety measures
Relevant information includes, but is not limited to, opening times and ticketing, routes and layout, and additional Covid-19 procedures and access facilities, such as the provision and cleaning of accessible toilets and the café. Institutions should produce up-to-date visual stories and sensory maps. Crucially, all communications should be amended following changes to government and/or institutional Covid-19 policies.
- Provide clear signage describing social distancing, wayfinding and exit routes
This is especially important for autistic individuals who can find unfamiliar environments overwhelming and is where pre-visit visual stories and sensory maps are invaluable. Institutions should also have marked exits enabling visitors to leave spaces without compromising social distancing.
- Reserve quieter slots for autistic visitors and other priority groups
A similar concept to ‘relaxed’ sessions, this information should be clearly advertised on organisations’ websites, with flexible booking available. Nevertheless, institutions should remain accessible always, with priority access for disabled visitors if queue management is employed, and frequent resting points.
- Communicate institutional endorsement of mask-exempt visitors
Whilst face masks are mandatory in UK museums, various people are exempt, including autistic individuals. Not all autistic people will want or need to exercise this exemption, but some will, many of whom may be anxious about being reproached as a result. Institutions should therefore consider displaying notices explaining mask exemptions, and offering those visitors a visual signifier, such as a badge or lanyard.
If you have any comments or would like to discuss this research, please do get in touch. I would like to thank all my interviewees and questionnaire respondents without whom I could not have pursued this study.
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