My son Tom at the USS Intrepid Museum
Why strive to meet the needs of people with autism?  Here are just a few of the reasons:

  • Museums meet the needs of people with passionate, focused interests
  • Museum-based education meets the needs of non-verbal learners
  • People with autism can become dedicated, engaged, active members, volunteers, and employees
  • With 1:88 people now diagnosed with autism, there is a significant audience to reach
  • Many funding agencies are interested in making grants to support autism inclusion
The reality is that most people with higher functioning forms of autism have a tough time in school.  Even if they are successful academically, they are more likely than most people to be bullied or, at the very least, marginalized socially.  Meanwhile, many people with autism have difficulty with academics, because so much of school-based learning revolves around the ability to learn and respond verbally -- and verbal communication is a challenge for most people with autism.

 Museums, for decades, have created multisensory, interactive educational tools that are far more appropriate for autistic learners than typical book/test methods.  These methods are used in few public schools -- and in almost no public schools after grade 3, due to the need to prepare students for  standardized tests.  Museums, therefore, have an almost ideal opportunity to reach, teach and engage people with autism.

Museums are a natural haven for kids with learning differences.  Unbound by the testing and restrictions of the public schools, museums have the freedom to engage learners where they are – and not where others would like them to be.   Sometimes, children with learning differences gravitate naturally to museums’ informal learning opportunities.  In other cases, museums take the initiative to reach out with specially designed programs that make the most of children’s interests and abilities. 

Making it work is surprisingly easy.  And the rewards are significant—not only to the children themselves, but to their families, and to the museums.  Multi-sensory approaches to teaching work well not only for those with “differences,” but also for a wide range of children and adults.  Those families who take advantage of specialized programs often become frequent visitors and members.  Grants are available to museums interested in inclusion.  Corporations are interested in funding events and programs that are labeled as "autism friendly."

Another plus to consider: design for people with autism is essentially identical to design for people with a wide range of "learning differences" ranging from ADD to dyslexia.  Previews, small group programs, multisensory teaching tools, fewer gratuitous sights and sounds, clear structure, and predictable schedules work for a huge range of children, teens, and adults.  And, with 1:88 children diagnosed with autism and over 13% of all school children now officially part of the “special needs” population (according to the US Department of Education), museums will need to tap into this audience to keep their visitor base growing.

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