But autistic children have a special advantage. They tend to be highly visual learners. Some even have photographic memories. Visual schedules are used in school settings to help autistic kids anticipate transitions, and visual teaching tools are staples for their teachers.
And so, when the Illinois Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project approached Sandy Trusewych of the Dupage Children’s Museum with the idea of a visual system for introducing autistic children to the museum’s exhibits, Sandy was intrigued.
Visual Planners for Museum Visits. The idea was simple: a set of visual guidebooks to prepare children and families to experience the museum, its exhibits, and its hands-on experiences. Wendy Partridge of the Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project explains: “Our project funded the creation of the books. I went to the museum, along with a typical child who was home schooled, and took pictures of the child going through the exhibits. Then we sat down with the museum staff and broke down the tasks. We created visual systems for various play schemes at exhibits like stream tables and construction zones. Once they get a gist of how to work at the stream table, they’ll come up with their own creative play.”
In addition to the photo books, which are available on loan for several exhibits, Sandy instituted a series of parent-training programs. She also had her staff attend a workshop on autism. Now, every month, the museum invites professionals from the communities to co-host special autism evenings. “It’s been hugely popular,” says Sandy. “All it took was an invitation. Sometimes they join the museum, sometimes they don’t – but this becomes a comfortable place for them.”
Autism-Friendly Museums in Your Neighborhood? The Dupage Children’s Museum is not alone. Today, quite a few museums are creating special opportunities for families with autism. Just a few examples --
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City runs Discovery Programs. These small-scale gallery tours encourage children to use all their senses to discover the world of fine art.
- The Garden State Discovery Museum, a children’s museum in Cherry Hill, NJ, offers special evenings, support groups, speakers and more for families with autism.
- The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont offers a year-long boat building and racing program for teens with a variety of disabilities, including autism.
- The Brookfield Zoo in Illinois offers special evenings for its visitors with autism. Also ask about their Visual Systems book.
Is your local museum open to learners with autism? There’s only one way to find out. Pick up the phone and give them a call. Chances are, if they’re not yet autism friendly, they’ll be open to the possibility of creating an autism-friendly atmosphere for your child and his peers!