What do SEND families want from museums in a time of COVID?

Kids in Museums, Autism in Museums and Sam Bowen carried out a survey specifically for SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) families all about their visits to museums pre and post lockdown. Interrogating the data Autism in Museums has come up with ideas to support accessibility and inclusion that all museums, galleries and heritage venues should be thinking about in a time of COVID.

What do SEND families want?

Let’s break this down into 4 main things –

1 – Quiet hours or relaxed openings – pre-Covid 71% of families said museums were too crowded to visit, that this was the main barrier. So this is actually a fantastic time to think about welcoming SEND families – social distancing and reduced numbers mean many families could find a visit manageable for the first time.

BUT…. One of the main worries that SEND families have visiting mid-Covid is other people keeping their social distance, 46% of families are very concerned about this. Even with social distancing, depending on your visitor numbers, it can still be challenging for SEND families. Although it is a difficult economic time for museums, perhaps consider specific slots for SEND families and those at higher risk and shielding like Lincoln Castle are doing. You may have to reduce your numbers even more.

It is great to see some museums are beginning to bring back their relaxed openings like the National Army Museum – https://www.nam.ac.uk/whats-on/ease-sensory-friendly-early-opening

Take a look at – the Museums Association article on Lincoln Castle https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/07/two-lincoln-heritage-attractions-launch-shielding-hour-for-vulnerable-visitors/

Quote from SEND families – “We need autism friendly session availability. Booked slots do not give the same facilities or freedom”

2 – SEND trained staff – SEND trained and aware staff is so important to SEND families. 71% of families surveyed say this is important to them. With many staff still furloughed, training refreshers can really help, learning teams have fantastic expertise that they can share. Be aware that some SEND families can really struggle to get to a museum for a specific time slot so a bit of flexibility can go a long way. Queuing can also be difficult for SEND families.

Take a look at – Autism in Museums/Kids in Museums autism training resource https://kidsinmuseums.org.uk/resources/how-can-your-museum-better-welcome-families-and-young-people-with-autism/

Quote from SEND families – “Booking time slots makes sense but know that we might struggle to keep to it due to child’s needs…. If on the day he doesn’t feel he can go out, we will miss the visit altogether”.  

3 – Visual stories – Visual stories with simple language, photographs and images can be used to clearly explain new visitor routes and rules and can help alleviate anxiety about a visit. 67% of families would like a visual story when visiting mid-Covid. You may already have a visual story pre-Covid but have you updated it? Some areas of your museum may be closed but may be really important to SEND visitors, particularly the hands-on and tactile exhibitions. Be really clear about what is and what isn’t open, including lifts and café.

Take a look at – Hull Museums visual stories post-Covid – Ferens Art Gallery https://www.hcandl.co.uk/sites/hcandl/files/media/Social%20Story%20Ferens%20Art%20Gallery.pdf

Streetlife Museum – https://www.hcandl.co.uk/sites/hcandl/files/media/Social%20Story%20Streetlife%20%20%282%29.pdf

Quote from SEND families “There are a lot of new rules around visiting places and my child has huge anxiety around getting into trouble for not knowing/breaking the rules.”

Sensory Backpack

4 – Getting hands on Tactile and sensory learning is really key to SEND families because often SEND children understand the world through touch, smell and taste. Pre-Covid 43% of SEND families found that museums were not hands on enough and this is even harder mid-Covid. Think about resources that could be sent home with visitors to help them engage after a visit. Outside spaces can be a great resource too, the National Maritime Museum have been designing sensory trails to help engage visitors in their outside spaces.

Take a look at – National Maritime Museum – SENsory trails – http://www.autisminmuseums.com/inviting-sensory-learners-to-explore-museums-in-a-time-of-covid-national-maritime-museum-sept-2020/

Quote from SEND families – “We want more hands on and sensory play for all ages.”

Other points to consider for SEND families

Some families are still shielding or are too worried to visit – We asked SEND families if they were likely to visit a museum in the year ahead, 10% were unlikely to as they were still shielding. This 10% need our support more than ever. Don’t stop engaging online because lockdown is over for some. There has been some fantastic creative online work happening and lots of examples in the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum From Home Awards short-list.

Remember it is not an either/or – visit in person or engage online situation. 35% of SEND families who visit would like to be provided with follow up virtual activities to do at home.

It is also not all about the digital, for those who are not able to visit 50% would love physical activity packs to do at home.  

Take a look at – National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne online art making resource specifically designed for autistic children http://www.autisminmuseums.com/intersecting-art-and-science-to-support-autistic-children-national-gallery-of-victoria-melbourne-aug-2020/

Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award from Home – https://kidsinmuseums.org.uk/2020/07/shortlist-announced-for-the-family-friendly-museum-award-from-home/

Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance – How creativity and culture are supporting shielding and vulnerable people from home – case studies https://www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk/how-creativity-and-culture-are-supporting-shielding-and-vulnerable-people-home-during-covid-19

Travel anxiety – Travel by public transport is often really difficult for SEND families because of sensory issues and that was before Covid. SEND families responded to our questions around travel and 84% would definitely prefer to travel by car to visit a museum, alongside this 57% need accessible parking. If you don’t have all your staff in is there availability in staff parking that you could free up? Do you have accessible parking near your museum you can add to your visual story? Improving parking could be a vital step in to welcoming SEND families.

Quote from SEND families“My son becomes overwhelmed by too much stimulus so to add a trip on public transport on top of a visit to a museum would likely be overwhelming for him and could potentially result in a meltdown”.

Toilets  – 44% of SEND families who answered our survey were very concerned about the availability of toilets. Many cafés and coffee shops have closed their toilets making it even harder to journey out. Make it really clear in your visual story and with signage at the museum how many toilets are open and where they are.

Trojan horse activity at the inaugural Early morning explorers’ event at the British Museum. Copyright British Museum

And finally…. the good news!

Pre-covid 75% of SEND families visited museums to have family time and 62% visited just to have fun! SEND families have been hit incredibly hard by Covid with loss of support. Museums can do so much to make a real difference to the lives of SEND families and they need it now more than ever. Mid-covid museums can still bring the fun but they might need to be a little bit more creative to achieve it!


You can read more about the survey on the Kids in Museums website – https://kidsinmuseums.org.uk/2020/09/heres-what-send-families-need-to-get-back-to-museums/

Sam Bowen has also produced a toolkit for museums with great advice for welcoming SEND families – https://kidsinmuseums.org.uk/resources/welcoming-special-needs-families/

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