Autism Awareness in Museums

Today is #WorldAutismAwarenessDay and I’d like to remind the museum field that we exist as your peers and colleagues, in addition to being an increasingly popular audience (yay!) for #MuseumEd programming. 🤗

I’m about to info-dump about how museums can better serve autistic folks.

If you are new to this conversation … please keep in mind that many people do prefer “autistic person” vs. “people with autism,” so that is what I’ll be using here. Some don’t. To each their own.

The American Alliance of Museums (@AAMers) identifies Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) as the “issue of our time” (Johnnetta Cole, qtd. in “Facing Change”).

In addition to the increasingly meaningful DEAI initiatives focused on race and gender equity, museums must learn more about physical and cognitive disability—an under-discussed aspect of DEAI, but one which is an instrumental part of the fourth pillar, “Inclusion.”

Scholar of museum studies and social work Lois Silverman argues that museums need to learn that “as a social creation, the at-risk experience implicates everyone, for we are all interconnected and interdependent” and thus museums must “recognize the need to address two major systems for change: people at risk and the social conditions that create and contribute to such risk.”

Museums have the opportunity—and the social responsibility—to “make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives,” including their social experiences. Autism is neurological variation and considered a developmental disability. It is a lifelong condition; that is, autistic children grow into autistic adults.

Despite its commitments to accessibility, however, the museum field is unprepared to accommodate our growing numbers. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 59 are on the autism spectrum in the United States—individuals of all genders, races, and backgrounds can be autistic. Some research suggests that, as our understanding of autism deepens, more are identified as autistic; other research suggests that the prevalence of autism is increasing.

However, what little museum programming for people with ASD that exists is often for children and their families or is focused on only the museum’s physical environment (e.g., accessible “quiet mornings” with dimmer lights, fewer people, and low-volume exhibits or movies). In addition to the challenges some autistic traits present, adults on the spectrum also face social isolation and report low community engagement and little “meaningful activity.”

26% of young adults with an autism spectrum disorder receive no support services after graduating high school; approximately 1 in 4 are “socially isolated,” meaning they rarely or never see or talk to friends and are not invited to social activities. In the U.S., it is estimated that 90% of autistic adults are underemployed.

Additionally, family members and partners do experience similar or related challenges, including social isolation. There is a clear need for more activities & services for young adults on the spectrum; in particular, meaningful opportunities to socialize & contribute to their communities.

How can Museums help?

Museums are “at their very core…institutions of social service.” (Silverman)

Museums as social institutions are well-poised to develop a relationship with autistic people; if museums are truly inclusive for this audience, they will promote mutually-beneficial opportunities for learning and development. This work begins with learning more about autism and the autistic museum experience. Across the United States, as museums begin experimenting with autism programming, practitioners are sharing their experiences online, at conferences, and in journal articles. This is awesome! But there are a few things I’d like to see more of from our field, including:

  • more programming for autistic adults, providing opportunities to socialize, develop skills, & pursue areas of interest
  • more literature focusing on autistic learning in museums
  • career pathways for autistic people to do paid, meaningful work in museums
  • support networks for autistic museum workers, as well as recognition from the museum community as the field carries out DEAI work
  • initiatives focused on on long-term community engagement with autistic children & adults (vs. one-and-done programs)
  • more research and partnerships with autistic people (by not for) about what they want/need from museums in their communities

It is only through meaningful interaction with autistic museum audiences & professionals that we will move from access to inclusion.

Selected sources:
“Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group.” American Alliance of Museums, 2018.

Silverman, Lois. The Social Work of Museums. Routledge, 2009. 

Weil, Stephen. “Museums: Can and Do they Make a Difference.” Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution, 2012.

About Autism.” Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, 2018.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Data and Statistics,” Center for Disease Control.

Yam, Kimberly. “Falling off the cliff.” The Huffington Post, 2015.

This blog post was originally published as a series of tweets. I have lightly edited it for clarity and posted here for easy finding, rereading, and sharing.

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