There is no such thing as a "typical" person with autism. In fact, the saying goes, "if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism."
Yes, all people with autism have some level of social communication challenge – but for one person that challenge may involve having a hard time interpreting body language, while for another person the challenge may lie in using spoken language at all.
Challenges of Autism: Overview
Sensory issues – hyper or hypo sensitivity to light, sound, crowds, and so forth, may be a problem – but while some people over react to sensory input, others under-react.
A significant percentage of people with autism have intellectual challenges or deficits – though some are intellectually outstanding. Most people with autism have a tough time, though, learning entirely through spoken and written words.
Splinter and Savant skills are the “Rainman” abilities you’ve seen in the media – an amazing ability to do something very specific such as mental mathematics. Only about 10% of people with autism have savant skills, so it's not particularly common even within the autism community. Splinter skills are real skills, but in general they exist on their own, and are not part of an area of general interest or ability. So, for example, a mathematical savant may have amazing abilities to calculate, but no understanding of basic time-telling or money skills.
Perseveration is an overfocus on a specific area of fasination that may or may not be functional; for example, an intense focus on football stats or astronomy. Sometimes, perseverative interests can become true passions; sometimes, though, the interest is simply in collecting information or objects, and not in the idea behind the collection.
Behavior challenges can be significant, and may include anything from bolting from the room or hitting to self-stimulation in the form of flapping or making noise to an inability to quiet down, sit still, and so forth.
Challenges of Autism in the Museum
Chances are, you have autistic people in your museum every day. If someone outside of your staff (a teacher, parent, therapist, or friend) is overseeing their behavior and learning experience, you may either be unaware of their existence or unconcerned about their inclusion.
But when the inclusion experience is up to the museum staff, things are very different. There are challenges to face and overcome -- all of which are legitimate and real.
Inclusion requires a willingness to engage with people who are different; a desire to be creative and flexible in approaches to exhibit development, education, and program management; and, most importantly, funding for training, web materials, preview videos, and other accessibility tools. These are not "no brainers," and few museums are willing to go beyond special, one-time events or low-cost accessibility tools to achieve authentic inclusion of people on the autism spectrum.
What stands between museums and full inclusion? Here's a very short, incomplete list of the barriers you may face:
- Competing priorities for funding
- Staff turnover
- Concerns about general visitor experience when autistic people are present
- Lack of staff/volunteer training
- Anxiety among staff members about autism and autistic behaviors
- Lack of flexibility and imagination around presentations, exhibits, and programs
All of these issues can be addressed and/or overcome, whether at the most basic level or at truly inclusive level. But until there is an individual or group willing to champion inclusion as a real museum priority, it won't happen.