Museums & Autistic Joy/Empowerment

I was a few paragraphs into a draft blog post earlier this week that had me trying to untangle complicated feelings and Discourse re: Autism Awareness vs. Acceptance Month, especially relating to museum work, but I had to stop.  Usually when I am writing or speaking about autism in museums, I feel like I need to overexplain basic ideas about autism because I see so little awareness, understanding, or acceptance of autistic people in our field – not only as museum visitors, but also (and especially) as museum staff.  Those ‘basics’ include explanations of autism as a spectrum, the fact that autistic kids grow up into autistic adults, the idea that autistic people can – and do – work in museums, and that there’s so much more to engaging autistic audiences in museums beyond sensory-friendly hours.  In meeting museum people “where they are” in terms of their understanding of autism, I usually feel compelled to dial everything back to the beginning before trying to make a point.

Advocating for autism awareness or acceptance in museums exhausts me sometimes, because I’d rather be celebrating moments of ‘autistic joy’ or – as a twitter friend put it – ‘autistic empowerment.’  I’d rather we showcase the mountain top of autistic joy & empowerment than review How To Hike the Autism Trail and Why It’s Worthwhile and Related to Museums’ Core Purpose as Social Institutions on every excursion.  At the same time, it feels somewhat unfeasible because even I have only glimpsed that mountaintop a few times in the context of museum work, and I’ve been hiking it nearly every day for several years.

Yes, there were/are challenges I have with museum work, but I’m not getting into it today.  Instead, I’m going to share a couple bits of autistic joy/empowerment that I’ve come to celebrate from my museum career so far. 

Joy: Collecting, cataloging, arranging, and info-dumping

Did you know that museums are revered for doing some of the exact same activities that are major elements of autistic culture?  Many autistic people engage with our special interests by collecting and curating objects and information about our focused passions.  We could be such kindred spirits![1]

Many of us also love “info-dumping” about our favorite topics – assuming others will find them as interesting as we do.  Too often, autistic people are pathologized or viewed as abnormal for doing this – but, in museums, these activities are welcome and often the foundation of a museums’ existence.[2]  Museums can be temples of special interests – places you can explore your interest in a way that’s celebrated.  It’s not just that museums may display special objects or offer educational programming related to your interest, but the fact that your interest is represented in the museum shows that other people are interested, too, and that can provide a sense of connection over shared interests.   In that way, museums have helped me feel less alone.

Even though I couldn’t articulate it as a young student, this is what drew me to museums; studying museum education taught me how to converse about those interests with other people in ways that facilitate meaning-making rather than lecturing anyone who would listen to my monologues. Now, as a professional, I love collecting articles and ideas about how we can radicalize museums and change them for the better. And of course, I love to visit them, too.  I was diagnosed with ASD as an adult, and the evaluation report reads, “Sam displayed a focused interest in museums.”  Museums themselves are one of my special interests, which is part of why I engage with the field and have such strong feelings about autism inclusion and disability justice in museums.

Empowerment: Museum education taught me how to talk to people

As a kid/teen and in my first couple years of college, I often was not able to initiate or carry on a back-and-forth conversation with people outside of close friends and family or teachers in the same way my peers could.  I wasn’t just awkward, or cutely quirky; the rules of engagement were invisible to me.  Sometimes those rules are still invisible, or I sometimes forget them and walk straight into social mishaps, but it was practicing and studying museum education that illuminated rules of engagement that I could use both in the gallery and in my social life.

My first role as a museum educator involved several different scripts for demonstrations and activity stations.  The scripts gave us language to talk about objects or ideas, and main messages the museum wanted us to get across to visitors.  We also had to really understand the content so that we could explain it well, respond to visitors’ questions that weren’t covered in the script, or change our approach to the interaction depending on visitors’ different learning needs.

In autistic culture, “scripting” is a coping mechanism we use to engage with others.  We might write out a “script” for a phone call, or have specific phrases we cycle through in conversation, because thinking about the invisible mechanics of an interaction takes extra effort for us, and makes it difficult to focus on or enjoy socializing. 

Having a script for museum interactions that I would run through with hundreds of people every day made the interactions similar enough to each other that I could, with time and keen observation, draw out the invisible mechanics behind our conversations.  I learned how to tell if someone wasn’t understanding the content based on the responses they gave to questions or what questions they asked.  I learned how to tell if someone was more interested in a different aspect of the topic, and could use transitions from the script to move the conversation in a different direction.  I learned how to identify the body language of disinterest, and learned how to gracefully wrap up an interaction so someone could leave to see something they were more interested in.  With the script and memorized content as my safety net, I had the space to learn what other people were communicating when they spoke with me. I had a database of “if they say/do x, I respond with y.” That is, I could run the script through an algorithm in my mind to find the content or phrases that delivered a more tailored response to a visitor and give them a meaningful interaction. 

The people-reading skills I developed as a museum educator helped me to grow in my personal social interactions and at work – if you chat with me now, you’d probably never guess how difficult it used to be for me (and sometimes, still is).  I really wouldn’t exist as I do without having had this hands-on experience.

The more time I spent learning to read and respond to people at the museum, the more interested I became in museum education theory.  I loved studying pedagogies in school, and then showing up to a shift at the museum and seeing those same theories play out in an interaction.  By that time, I’d already been giving the same demonstrations and guided interactions for years, so the content and script were second nature.  So, I had even more space to see the finer points of the invisible mechanics of our interactions, and had a marvelous time visualizing the theories in my practice in real time. 

Developing those people-reading skills in the context of museum education not only helped me to connect with others, but also empowered me to train newer educators in facilitating museum interactions. I could go beyond correcting content errors. I could help other educators interpret visitors’ words and behavior to “meet them where they are” so they could improve their practice as well.

I also loved observing how visitors moved through and used the galleries – which exhibits drew them in or turned them off, which interactives were confusing to them, how foot traffic flowed or bottlenecked and why.   I can’t really describe what was happening in my brain in words when I hit this stride, but a good comparison would be the scenes from the movie Temple Grandin that show how she visualized the mechanics of her designs and could manipulate design models in her mind.  I often struggled to communicate my observations, but I felt such pure joy in having them – whether leading an interactive demonstration or watching visitors move through the gallery, there was this contained museum education system that I could see all the pieces of and attune myself to the music of it all. 

Make April suck less

Thanks for reading! I will always have critiques on how museums & their professionals conduct themselves, particularly related to the realm of autism advocacy, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of celebrating joy and empowerment. There are good things, too.

Anyway, please spend your “Autism Acceptance Month” energy on learning from autistic people, centering our perspectives, and not saying things like “we’re all a little autistic” or “you don’t look autistic.” 

[1] I’ve seen some interesting conversations about autistic people’s contributions to museums throughout history being overlooked or understudied – the idea that, since collecting etc. is bedrock of both autistic culture and museums, that surely autistic people have been involved in the development of museum collections or museums themselves.  Super interesting line of inquiry!

[2] I’m not arguing for favoring collections over workers or anything, and of course understand that much of museums’ collections – and the impulse to do so – are rooted in imperialism and colonialism.  So, obvious departure there.

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