Supporting teachers and students from Autism Spectrum Condition specialist schools to engage with the Natural History Museum, March, 2021

Championing diversity to create an inclusive organisation is a core value for the Natural History Museum and will help us achieve our strategic priority to engage and involve the widest possible audience. To build on the Museum’s knowledge of how to engage neurodiverse children and their families, the Audience Research and Insight Team teamed up with Access and Inclusion Advisor, Katie Gonzalez-Bell, to understand how to support teachers and students from Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) specialist schools engage with the Museum. Here is what we learnt from two focus groups with teachers representing 7 specialist schools in central London.

  1. Teachers want their students to have equity of cultural opportunities through off-site learning.

The opportunity for their students to experience and enjoy culture is important to teachers, who want to use off-site learning as an opportunity to show the public and organisations that their students have just as much right to access this content as other audiences. Therefore, visibility in the community and “being seen” is important for teachers. This, in turn, allows teachers to build up parental confidence in taking their children to similar spaces.

2. Benefits of off-site learning for Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) students include: enhanced wellbeing, broadening experiences, developing skills and gaining work experience.

Teachers recognise that off-site learning has many benefits for their students. It allows them to develop skills, navigate new spaces, enhances their wellbeing and feel part of the community. It also allows them to apply the skills taught in schools in different context which is motivating for the students. 

3. Teachers place a high value on outdoor learning

Outdoor learning is a key feature within all the schools’ teaching and something they are all keen to do more of. Learning outdoors is beneficial for these students because it is multisensory and gives them independence and autonomy. Teachers have also noticed that being outdoors has a positive impact on their students’ behaviour when returning to the classroom, noting they were more calm and relaxed and, therefore, more able to focus.

4. There is a perception that the ‘historical content’ and format of a traditional museum with ‘things behind glass’ would not be suitable for their students.

This audience engage best through sensory interaction and the opportunity to ‘get up close’. Teachers are put off visiting the museum due to lack of interaction with objects and specimens ‘behind glass’ and fear of breaking something. Teachers also expressed surprise and did not expect the Museum to have a SEN offer.

5. A Museum visit cannot cater for all students in a class – but that’s ok.

There is no one ‘typical’ class in an autism specialist school – each student comes with their own unique way of learning. Teachers are fully aware that not every one of their students will be able to visit a museum, due to noise, crowds, transport etc. but reassured us that this is ok, as long as we have done our best to cater for as many of their students as is possible!

6. Developing a strong relationship with an organisation is key for teachers.

Developing a relationship with an organisation and clear communication in advance of a trip was highlighted as the best way of ensuring the offer was suitable for the students and staff. Ideally creating a bespoke offer (co-production). This builds confidence and allows multiple visits from different ages within the school.

7. Safety and risk management is the biggest priority for teachers.

The safety of both the students and the general public is the biggest concern of teachers as their students are unpredictable and may exhibit behaviours that challenge. They are also keen to protect their students’ dignity. To mitigate these safety fears, teachers would like exclusive use of the space, all day coach parking, a breakout space where they can cater for medical needs or those with challenging behaviour and well trained museum staff who are accepting and non-judgemental.

What’s Next?

As a result of these findings, the Museum’s Urban Nature Project will be partnering with 2 local ASC schools to create a bespoke learning offer for their students in the newly developed wildlife garden. Learnings from this will help to develop the Museum’s wider learning offer for this audience.

Laura Davidson,
UNP Audience Researcher,
Feb 2021

Natural History Museum –

NHM – Urban Nature Project –

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