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Talking point
Neurodiversity and attractions

The attractions industry is waking up to the needs of neurodivergent visitors, but is enough being done? How can operators ensure their attractions are as welcoming and inclusive as possible? Magali Robathan speaks to those working to create a better experience for all


Over the past few years, the issue of ensuring that attractions and museums are more inclusive and welcoming for people with sensory needs has risen up the agenda. Major museums offer sensory sessions, when they dim the lights and noise and admission numbers are controlled.

While it’s a great start, and there are many attractions out there going above and beyond, offering sensory backpacks, quiet spaces and a range of other accommodations, there’s still a long way to go. There are gaps in provision for adults with sensory needs, and there’s a growing movement that argues that it’s time to provide the accommodations that make visits easier at all times, instead of only offering them during special sensory sessions.

Assumptions are still made about what neurodivergent visitors want and need – sometimes without proper consultation with the visitors themselves. Many people with sensory needs find too much noise overwhelming, for example, but others find quiet spaces difficult and need stronger stimuli to orient. What helps one person might be difficult for someone else.

There’s no simple answer, but what definitely helps is reaching out to the people you’re trying to welcome, being open, and sharing experiences. Here we talk to some of those people working hard to create an inclusive and positive experience for everyone.

Emily Elsworth
Autism trainer and advocate
Photo: Emily Elsworth
As an autistic person, what elements of a museum or attraction can be hard for you?

I was only diagnosed with autism 19 months ago, at the age of 27. As a child, I didn’t know I was autistic or had sensory processing issues, but I found many attractions overly busy and very challenging. I remember trying to avoid interactions with people as much as possible.

I struggle with sudden noises – I don’t like it when museums have microphones hanging from the ceiling that suddenly start playing when you walk past. The lighting on particular exhibition panels can make it difficult to take in the information. And too many conflicting visuals at one time can be a real barrier – I know exhibitions sometimes like to cram a lot of things into a small space, but that can be incredibly overloading for someone who has sensory processing needs.

If there are too many people in the room, I find it hard to focus on what I’m looking at. I don’t like entrance halls that are too bright and there’s lots going on. Lack of clear signage is an issue.

Can you think of a particular time you visited an attraction and it was a difficult experience?

I recently went to visit a zoo which claimed on its website to be inclusive. I had a really horrible experience and I don’t think I’ll go back.

I got off the bus and was greeted by blaring music – it was like an outdoor nightclub – and staff shouting information. The ticket gate and entrance were not well explained, there was no clear signage and once we got into the zoo, there were no staff around to ask questions. I was trying to understand the maps – which all had bright backgrounds, making them hard to read – with the loud music and noise going on around me.

If I get overwhelmed, I normally mask when out in public, but that day was probably the closest I’ve come to having a meltdown in a public place. I got very agitated and I could see visitors walking past and tutting. I was with my mum, and there were no staff around for my mum to approach and say that I needed a quiet space.

What advice would you give to staff about how to react if a visitor is becoming visibly overwhelmed?

Don’t stare, and don’t ask loads of questions because that’s just going to cause more overwhelm. If they’re with someone else, talk to that person, direct them to a quiet space or sensory space, depending on what’s causing the overwhelm. If they’re on their own, give them space. Move other visitors along if they’re staring or tutting.

It’s also important to offer somewhere to go and sit and recharge once the meltdown is over rather than immediately trying to continue with the visit.

Can you think of a positive experience of visiting a museum or attraction?

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had a wholly positive experience from start to finish. The closest I’ve come was a recent visit to the Tower of London. They had very good information on their website about where to go and very good signage around the attraction. There was a one way system in place in the towers, and clocks telling you when the next tour was taking place so it was very clear. The warders were really friendly if you needed help and it was obviously easy to spot them.

But there were crowds, which was difficult. And I struggled to find anything I could eat in the cafe because there are so many texturals things I can’t manage.

One thing that people often don’t think about with sensory needs is food. It’s really helpful to have your menus on your website – if there’s no menu I can read in advance, that immediately makes me anxious. Many attractions have their menus on screens that can be hard to read, and I feel I’m holding people in the queue up while I go through every single ingredient on the menu. It would also help to have a wider choice of food, and perhaps some ingredients left over so people can request food made up that’s sensory friendly.

Is there a gap in provision for adult visitors with sensory needs?

There’s a huge gap in provision for adults with autism – there seems to be an idea that sensory needs are just about children. We need acknowledgement that those needs don’t end when you turn 18, although support often does. I was diagnosed as an adult, and many other people are too, so you’re missing out on a whole generation of people who desperately need additional access and support.

The differences in adaptations for adult and child visitors aren’t huge – you still need to think about sound, visuals, smells and textures. It’s more of an issue about communication – so much of the information is addressed to ‘parents and carers of children on the autistic spectrum’. I can still obviously read that information, but it annoys me that it’s aimed at the parents instead of giving that ownership to the autistic person.

What other advice do you have for museums and attractions trying to be more inclusive?

If you want to be inclusive, the welcome is so important, and that starts when a visitor books their ticket. Think about your pre-visit, have a visual story on your website with a map, showing the entrance, the toilets and other relevant information.

Also, make sure the things you say are there, are actually there. Do you have lots of staff around? Is it clear who the staff are? If I need to ask a question, can I? Make sure your staff understand what a sunflower lanyard means.

If you’re planning to make adaptations, bring in the people that need the adaptations – otherwise you’ll make assumptions that might not be right. Don’t just aim your information at parents. Adults have sensory needs too, and we like going to museums and attractions on our own.

If you make a mistake, don’t be defensive – be grateful for feedback and be open about the fact you didn’t get it right on that occasion.

And don’t be scared. There are so many positives to bringing in a whole new group of people into your attraction that you’d be missing out on if you didn’t make those changes.

I recently went to visit a zoo which claimed on its website to be inclusive. I had a really horrible experience and I don't think I'll go back
The Tower of London has clear signage, helpful staff and good information on its website, says Elsworth / Photo: ©Historic Royal Palaces
Uma Srivastava
Executive director, KultureCity
Photo: Ryan Murphy

KultureCity is the US’s leading nonprofit on sensory accessibility and acceptance for those with invisible disabilities.

Where are we now in terms of attractions and inclusion?

Our aim is to help museums and attractions create safe spaces and encourage safe conversations to ensure visitors can understand and engage with the content without having to worry about becoming overloaded.

What we saw a few years ago is museums and science centres creating sensory-friendly hours, when they dim down the lights and noise and sessions are crowd controlled. That was a good thought, but what if a visitor wants to go and they’re having a bad day, or there’s bad traffic or a storm that stops them getting there? They’ve missed their chance.

We want to push the boundaries and say: sensory friendly is good, but it’s not enough. Let’s move towards sensory-inclusion, so that people with sensory needs don’t have to wait for special hours – they can go to a museum or attraction as long as their doors are open.

How do you advise your clients to become more sensory-friendly?

Becoming inclusive is a three pillar approach. The first pillar is staff training, so that the next time a volunteer or staff member is engaging with someone with a sensory need, they know how to approach an individual, what language to use and not to use, and what tools might be helpful.

Pillar number two is providing sensory bags – we ensure that all of our venues have sensory bags that families can check out for free. They contain noise cancelling headphones, three different types of fidgets and a visual thermometer so that if someone’s unable to communicate verbally in that moment, they can point to different emotions or something they need such as a break, a restroom, or water.

The third is social stories. They’re a visual narrative that help individuals prepare for their visit. We ask venues to identify a couple of pockets that are quieter so that if people get overwhelmed they can step away to decompress, as well as headphone zones – areas that are louder than others so people can pop on headphones if they need to or grab a fidget.

What are the arguments for and against sensory-friendly sessions?

It’s not just children who have sensory needs, it’s adults too – and adults are sometimes less likely to want to draw attention to their sensory need. Say you have an adult with PTSD – they might keep their diagnosis private, and might not want to raise their hand and go to a special sensory-friendly session where they could find themselves in a room full of people who are not their age.

Also, sometimes sensory-friendly hours end up not being sensory-friendly, because all of a sudden you’ve got 200 families coming at the same time wanting a quiet environment, and it’s no longer quiet. We want to move from sensory-friendly to sensory inclusion.

What simple changes can attractions make to ensure they’re as welcoming as possible to all visitors?

It’s about shifting your mindset. Making sure that as long as your doors are open, people of all abilities are able to walk in and feel comfortable. Pivoting away from the idea that you should only let those with sensory needs come in at particular hours.

The other thing we’re seeing is people having a narrow focus and thinking that sensory needs is just autism. Autism is a big part of that community, but there are also many other conditions that mean people get overwhelmed. Make sure when you say you’re sensory-inclusive, you’re including all communities.

Sensory-friendly is good, but it's not enough. Let's move towards sensory-inclusion, so that people with sensory needs don't have to wait for special hours
Roger Ideishi
Director of Occupational Therapy at George Washington University, US
Photo: Roger Ideishi

George Washington University Professor Roger Ideishi works with museums and arts organisations to create supportive environments for people with autism and sensory needs.

What elements of an exhibition or visitor attraction might typically be challenging for people with ASD and sensory processing issues?

There can be many things – diversity is in the term neurodiversity.

There’s a tendency to think loud noises and bright lights are the main thing people with ASD have difficulty with – that’s true for many autistic individuals but not all. Spaces that are too quiet or don’t have enough lighting can be difficult as well.

Every venue, every community, every person has unique needs.

What’s your starting point when working with a museum or cultural institution?

I often start by examining their mission and vision statements to see if they align with their actions – not partial actions but a fully integrated strategic plan that’s building inclusive capacity across all layers of operation, not just visitor services.

I also ask about the organisation’s relationship with the local disability community. Is it a mutually trusting relationship? Does the organisation have an accessibility advisory board with disabled stakeholders? Does the board of directors include persons with disability and other diverse identities?

I often see my role as facilitating dialogue and connecting stakeholders who haven’t been previously connected. Then I let an organic process emerge since the needs will be different for every venue, community, and person.

How do you measure the success of a project?

Success can be measured in many ways that don’t always align with a non-disabled person’s perspective. A person taking part in a cultural experience for 20 minutes then leaving before the end may be seen as unsuccessful. But for that individual, 20 minutes may have been more than they’d previously managed, so this could be a huge success. Maybe the next time, they’ll stay longer. 

There have been some common responses from the variety of sensory experiences I’ve been involved in. The most impactful is the disabled person saying: “I get to be who I am.” Imagine not being who you are when you go into the community? The idea of masking who you are is to make non-disabled people comfortable, so who’s really making the accommodation here?

Are there any common ‘mistakes’ when it comes to creating a sensory-friendly experience?

Common mistakes are thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to create sensory friendly/relaxed experiences. Every experience, venue and community is different.

Presuming that every autistic person needs softer sounds is another common misperception. Many do but not all. Some may need greater sound intensity to organise and orient to the experience. Also most venues address the typical five sensations but there are other ways we perceive the environment that need attention, such as gravity, our perception and response to the intensity of gravity. Also, not all autistic individuals have sensory processing difficulties.

Can you think of any examples of quite simple changes museum operators can make?

Just be nice to every disabled and non-disabled person. It seems simple and it is, but it’s often not universally done because of pre-conceived and misperceived ideas of disability.

Success can be measured in many ways that don’t always align with a non-disabled person’s perspective
Ideishi has worked with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia / Photo: Sciencenter
Fiona Slater
Head of Access & Equity at the Science Museum Group, UK
Photo: ©Science Museum Group
How does the Science Museum support visitors with ASD and sensory needs?

We support autistic visitors and people with sensory access requirements through a range of initiatives. We know how crucial planning a trip in advance is to visitors with sensory needs and their families so we’ve recently created a visual story and will soon be publishing our Sensory Map. This gives visitors information about the museum, including key sensory information, so they can prepare for their visit.

Within our public programme we run a series of events designed for people that want to visit us in a quieter environment. On 6 August we’ll be running the next in our popular Sensory Astronights series – our much-loved overnight adventure has been tweaked so that it’s suitable for people that want to experience the museum away from the regular hustle and bustle. We also continue to deliver relaxed and out of hours events such as Early Birds and Night Owls.

We’re aware that the museum can be an overwhelming space so we have specific pages on our website that raise any potential triggers for visitors before they arrive. Our accessibility pages highlight the busiest times to visit and we flag which demonstrations have loud noises. Our visitor experience team are also trained on how to support visitors, and to direct them to a quiet space if they need to take time out. 

What’s your starting point when thinking about how to ensure your museum is as inclusive as possible for visitors with autism and/or sensory needs?

Consultation! Over the years we’ve partnered and consulted with a number of organisations, individuals, families and autistic adults to understand the barriers posed by the museum and any gaps in our public programme – and how best to tackle these.

Have your ideas evolved about how to create a welcoming environment within the Science Museum? And would you say attitudes have evolved generally within the world of museums?

One of our five core values at the Science Museum is to be ‘Open for All’ – this is our commitment to ensuring that the millions of people who visit or engage with us online feel welcome and see our museum as a place for them.

A key part of this is also broadening the scope of stories we tell in the museum, including recognising and celebrating the contribution of neurodivergent people to STEM subjects, as it’s so important that visitors see themselves reflected in our galleries. 

Attitudes are evolving across the sector and awareness of the potential barriers for autistic visitors and people with sensory needs are improving. There’s more to be done but there’s definitely been a shift in the desire to make museums as inclusive as possible. 

What advice would you give to other operators looking to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment?

My number one tip would always be to involve the groups you want to reach out to in the discussions from the beginning. There will never be a ‘one size fits all’ solution so we need to be flexible and offer a variety of ways visitors can engage with the collection and activities we offer.

Making sure that colleagues have the training, awareness and confidence to support visitors who face a range of access barriers is also incredibly important. A positive interaction with a member of staff is often what elevates a visit and makes visitors keen to return.

We're broadening the scope of stories we tell, including celebrating the contribution of neurodivergent people to STEM subjects. It’s so important that visitors see themselves reflected in our galleries
Matti Wallin
Accessibility Programs Manager, Houston Museum of Natural Science, US
Photo: houston museum of natural science

Houston Museum of Natural Science, in Houston, US, is a Certified Autism Center that offers a range of tools and support for visitors with autism and sensory needs.

How does the Houston Museum of Natural Science support visitors with ASD and sensory needs?

We offer a range of resources at the museum, including visual vocabulary cards, exploration planners, sensory guides, sensory backpacks, and our Access HMNS app.

Our app has a map of the museum to help visitors plan ahead and our sensory backpacks include fidgets, headphones, and sunglasses if our exhibits feel a little loud, bright, or overstimulating.

HMNS also has sensory friendly events where families can visit the museum while the exhibit halls are adjusted to be as sensory-neutral as possible.

Our staff are another great resource – HMNS team members are very accommodating and always willing to assist.

What’s your starting point when thinking about how to ensure the museum is as inclusive as possible?

Your institution can have all the resources in the world available, but they’re not meaningful if your staff don’t know about them or the guests that they serve. Staff training is the most important starting point when thinking about creating an inclusive experience.

Basic disability etiquette, autism awareness, and training about what your institution offers and how it is helpful is key. HMNS is a Certified Autism Center, which means that our staff went through a training module through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education. This has been a really helpful platform to foster a larger culture of compassion among the staff.

If a meltdown takes place in the museum and that’s what the guest needs to move through in order to carry on with their day, we understand. If a person needs to be directed to a quiet space or provided ear defenders, we know what to do.

There’s an argument that if you can offer accommodations during sensory-friendly events, you should offer them at all times. What are your thoughts?

Creating resources to be used during everyday visits and building exhibits and spaces so they’re inherently inclusive is obviously the ultimate goal, but I also see the benefit in continuing to offer sensory-friendly events. Some people with autism and learning disabilities can feel judged by other visitors, so it’s nice to offer a time where they can be free of that feeling and be themselves.

By offering both options, you put the choice in your guests’ hands.

How have your ideas on inclusion evolved over the years?

It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, and if you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve met one person with autism. I’ve learned to not overgeneralise and let our visitors decide what works best for them and then give them the tools to make that happen.

Do you have anything to add?

Making your space inclusive and sensory-friendly is helpful for a lot of people, not just people with autism and sensory sensitivities. We’ve received positive comments from guests who get migraines, are prone to seizures, and younger guests who might be afraid of sensory components in our exhibits.

I’ve never had a visitor without a disability complain about an accommodation that HMNS has made. Creating an inclusive environment supports all audiences.

If a meltdown takes place in the museum, we understand. If a person needs to be directed to a quiet space, we know what to do
Houston Museum of Natural Science is a Certified Autism Center / Photo: houston museum of natural science
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Talking point
Neurodiversity and attractions

The attractions industry is waking up to the needs of neurodivergent visitors, but is enough being done? How can operators ensure their attractions are as welcoming and inclusive as possible? Magali Robathan speaks to those working to create a better experience for all


Over the past few years, the issue of ensuring that attractions and museums are more inclusive and welcoming for people with sensory needs has risen up the agenda. Major museums offer sensory sessions, when they dim the lights and noise and admission numbers are controlled.

While it’s a great start, and there are many attractions out there going above and beyond, offering sensory backpacks, quiet spaces and a range of other accommodations, there’s still a long way to go. There are gaps in provision for adults with sensory needs, and there’s a growing movement that argues that it’s time to provide the accommodations that make visits easier at all times, instead of only offering them during special sensory sessions.

Assumptions are still made about what neurodivergent visitors want and need – sometimes without proper consultation with the visitors themselves. Many people with sensory needs find too much noise overwhelming, for example, but others find quiet spaces difficult and need stronger stimuli to orient. What helps one person might be difficult for someone else.

There’s no simple answer, but what definitely helps is reaching out to the people you’re trying to welcome, being open, and sharing experiences. Here we talk to some of those people working hard to create an inclusive and positive experience for everyone.

Emily Elsworth
Autism trainer and advocate
Photo: Emily Elsworth
As an autistic person, what elements of a museum or attraction can be hard for you?

I was only diagnosed with autism 19 months ago, at the age of 27. As a child, I didn’t know I was autistic or had sensory processing issues, but I found many attractions overly busy and very challenging. I remember trying to avoid interactions with people as much as possible.

I struggle with sudden noises – I don’t like it when museums have microphones hanging from the ceiling that suddenly start playing when you walk past. The lighting on particular exhibition panels can make it difficult to take in the information. And too many conflicting visuals at one time can be a real barrier – I know exhibitions sometimes like to cram a lot of things into a small space, but that can be incredibly overloading for someone who has sensory processing needs.

If there are too many people in the room, I find it hard to focus on what I’m looking at. I don’t like entrance halls that are too bright and there’s lots going on. Lack of clear signage is an issue.

Can you think of a particular time you visited an attraction and it was a difficult experience?

I recently went to visit a zoo which claimed on its website to be inclusive. I had a really horrible experience and I don’t think I’ll go back.

I got off the bus and was greeted by blaring music – it was like an outdoor nightclub – and staff shouting information. The ticket gate and entrance were not well explained, there was no clear signage and once we got into the zoo, there were no staff around to ask questions. I was trying to understand the maps – which all had bright backgrounds, making them hard to read – with the loud music and noise going on around me.

If I get overwhelmed, I normally mask when out in public, but that day was probably the closest I’ve come to having a meltdown in a public place. I got very agitated and I could see visitors walking past and tutting. I was with my mum, and there were no staff around for my mum to approach and say that I needed a quiet space.

What advice would you give to staff about how to react if a visitor is becoming visibly overwhelmed?

Don’t stare, and don’t ask loads of questions because that’s just going to cause more overwhelm. If they’re with someone else, talk to that person, direct them to a quiet space or sensory space, depending on what’s causing the overwhelm. If they’re on their own, give them space. Move other visitors along if they’re staring or tutting.

It’s also important to offer somewhere to go and sit and recharge once the meltdown is over rather than immediately trying to continue with the visit.

Can you think of a positive experience of visiting a museum or attraction?

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had a wholly positive experience from start to finish. The closest I’ve come was a recent visit to the Tower of London. They had very good information on their website about where to go and very good signage around the attraction. There was a one way system in place in the towers, and clocks telling you when the next tour was taking place so it was very clear. The warders were really friendly if you needed help and it was obviously easy to spot them.

But there were crowds, which was difficult. And I struggled to find anything I could eat in the cafe because there are so many texturals things I can’t manage.

One thing that people often don’t think about with sensory needs is food. It’s really helpful to have your menus on your website – if there’s no menu I can read in advance, that immediately makes me anxious. Many attractions have their menus on screens that can be hard to read, and I feel I’m holding people in the queue up while I go through every single ingredient on the menu. It would also help to have a wider choice of food, and perhaps some ingredients left over so people can request food made up that’s sensory friendly.

Is there a gap in provision for adult visitors with sensory needs?

There’s a huge gap in provision for adults with autism – there seems to be an idea that sensory needs are just about children. We need acknowledgement that those needs don’t end when you turn 18, although support often does. I was diagnosed as an adult, and many other people are too, so you’re missing out on a whole generation of people who desperately need additional access and support.

The differences in adaptations for adult and child visitors aren’t huge – you still need to think about sound, visuals, smells and textures. It’s more of an issue about communication – so much of the information is addressed to ‘parents and carers of children on the autistic spectrum’. I can still obviously read that information, but it annoys me that it’s aimed at the parents instead of giving that ownership to the autistic person.

What other advice do you have for museums and attractions trying to be more inclusive?

If you want to be inclusive, the welcome is so important, and that starts when a visitor books their ticket. Think about your pre-visit, have a visual story on your website with a map, showing the entrance, the toilets and other relevant information.

Also, make sure the things you say are there, are actually there. Do you have lots of staff around? Is it clear who the staff are? If I need to ask a question, can I? Make sure your staff understand what a sunflower lanyard means.

If you’re planning to make adaptations, bring in the people that need the adaptations – otherwise you’ll make assumptions that might not be right. Don’t just aim your information at parents. Adults have sensory needs too, and we like going to museums and attractions on our own.

If you make a mistake, don’t be defensive – be grateful for feedback and be open about the fact you didn’t get it right on that occasion.

And don’t be scared. There are so many positives to bringing in a whole new group of people into your attraction that you’d be missing out on if you didn’t make those changes.

I recently went to visit a zoo which claimed on its website to be inclusive. I had a really horrible experience and I don't think I'll go back
The Tower of London has clear signage, helpful staff and good information on its website, says Elsworth / Photo: ©Historic Royal Palaces
Uma Srivastava
Executive director, KultureCity
Photo: Ryan Murphy

KultureCity is the US’s leading nonprofit on sensory accessibility and acceptance for those with invisible disabilities.

Where are we now in terms of attractions and inclusion?

Our aim is to help museums and attractions create safe spaces and encourage safe conversations to ensure visitors can understand and engage with the content without having to worry about becoming overloaded.

What we saw a few years ago is museums and science centres creating sensory-friendly hours, when they dim down the lights and noise and sessions are crowd controlled. That was a good thought, but what if a visitor wants to go and they’re having a bad day, or there’s bad traffic or a storm that stops them getting there? They’ve missed their chance.

We want to push the boundaries and say: sensory friendly is good, but it’s not enough. Let’s move towards sensory-inclusion, so that people with sensory needs don’t have to wait for special hours – they can go to a museum or attraction as long as their doors are open.

How do you advise your clients to become more sensory-friendly?

Becoming inclusive is a three pillar approach. The first pillar is staff training, so that the next time a volunteer or staff member is engaging with someone with a sensory need, they know how to approach an individual, what language to use and not to use, and what tools might be helpful.

Pillar number two is providing sensory bags – we ensure that all of our venues have sensory bags that families can check out for free. They contain noise cancelling headphones, three different types of fidgets and a visual thermometer so that if someone’s unable to communicate verbally in that moment, they can point to different emotions or something they need such as a break, a restroom, or water.

The third is social stories. They’re a visual narrative that help individuals prepare for their visit. We ask venues to identify a couple of pockets that are quieter so that if people get overwhelmed they can step away to decompress, as well as headphone zones – areas that are louder than others so people can pop on headphones if they need to or grab a fidget.

What are the arguments for and against sensory-friendly sessions?

It’s not just children who have sensory needs, it’s adults too – and adults are sometimes less likely to want to draw attention to their sensory need. Say you have an adult with PTSD – they might keep their diagnosis private, and might not want to raise their hand and go to a special sensory-friendly session where they could find themselves in a room full of people who are not their age.

Also, sometimes sensory-friendly hours end up not being sensory-friendly, because all of a sudden you’ve got 200 families coming at the same time wanting a quiet environment, and it’s no longer quiet. We want to move from sensory-friendly to sensory inclusion.

What simple changes can attractions make to ensure they’re as welcoming as possible to all visitors?

It’s about shifting your mindset. Making sure that as long as your doors are open, people of all abilities are able to walk in and feel comfortable. Pivoting away from the idea that you should only let those with sensory needs come in at particular hours.

The other thing we’re seeing is people having a narrow focus and thinking that sensory needs is just autism. Autism is a big part of that community, but there are also many other conditions that mean people get overwhelmed. Make sure when you say you’re sensory-inclusive, you’re including all communities.

Sensory-friendly is good, but it's not enough. Let's move towards sensory-inclusion, so that people with sensory needs don't have to wait for special hours
Roger Ideishi
Director of Occupational Therapy at George Washington University, US
Photo: Roger Ideishi

George Washington University Professor Roger Ideishi works with museums and arts organisations to create supportive environments for people with autism and sensory needs.

What elements of an exhibition or visitor attraction might typically be challenging for people with ASD and sensory processing issues?

There can be many things – diversity is in the term neurodiversity.

There’s a tendency to think loud noises and bright lights are the main thing people with ASD have difficulty with – that’s true for many autistic individuals but not all. Spaces that are too quiet or don’t have enough lighting can be difficult as well.

Every venue, every community, every person has unique needs.

What’s your starting point when working with a museum or cultural institution?

I often start by examining their mission and vision statements to see if they align with their actions – not partial actions but a fully integrated strategic plan that’s building inclusive capacity across all layers of operation, not just visitor services.

I also ask about the organisation’s relationship with the local disability community. Is it a mutually trusting relationship? Does the organisation have an accessibility advisory board with disabled stakeholders? Does the board of directors include persons with disability and other diverse identities?

I often see my role as facilitating dialogue and connecting stakeholders who haven’t been previously connected. Then I let an organic process emerge since the needs will be different for every venue, community, and person.

How do you measure the success of a project?

Success can be measured in many ways that don’t always align with a non-disabled person’s perspective. A person taking part in a cultural experience for 20 minutes then leaving before the end may be seen as unsuccessful. But for that individual, 20 minutes may have been more than they’d previously managed, so this could be a huge success. Maybe the next time, they’ll stay longer. 

There have been some common responses from the variety of sensory experiences I’ve been involved in. The most impactful is the disabled person saying: “I get to be who I am.” Imagine not being who you are when you go into the community? The idea of masking who you are is to make non-disabled people comfortable, so who’s really making the accommodation here?

Are there any common ‘mistakes’ when it comes to creating a sensory-friendly experience?

Common mistakes are thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to create sensory friendly/relaxed experiences. Every experience, venue and community is different.

Presuming that every autistic person needs softer sounds is another common misperception. Many do but not all. Some may need greater sound intensity to organise and orient to the experience. Also most venues address the typical five sensations but there are other ways we perceive the environment that need attention, such as gravity, our perception and response to the intensity of gravity. Also, not all autistic individuals have sensory processing difficulties.

Can you think of any examples of quite simple changes museum operators can make?

Just be nice to every disabled and non-disabled person. It seems simple and it is, but it’s often not universally done because of pre-conceived and misperceived ideas of disability.

Success can be measured in many ways that don’t always align with a non-disabled person’s perspective
Ideishi has worked with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia / Photo: Sciencenter
Fiona Slater
Head of Access & Equity at the Science Museum Group, UK
Photo: ©Science Museum Group
How does the Science Museum support visitors with ASD and sensory needs?

We support autistic visitors and people with sensory access requirements through a range of initiatives. We know how crucial planning a trip in advance is to visitors with sensory needs and their families so we’ve recently created a visual story and will soon be publishing our Sensory Map. This gives visitors information about the museum, including key sensory information, so they can prepare for their visit.

Within our public programme we run a series of events designed for people that want to visit us in a quieter environment. On 6 August we’ll be running the next in our popular Sensory Astronights series – our much-loved overnight adventure has been tweaked so that it’s suitable for people that want to experience the museum away from the regular hustle and bustle. We also continue to deliver relaxed and out of hours events such as Early Birds and Night Owls.

We’re aware that the museum can be an overwhelming space so we have specific pages on our website that raise any potential triggers for visitors before they arrive. Our accessibility pages highlight the busiest times to visit and we flag which demonstrations have loud noises. Our visitor experience team are also trained on how to support visitors, and to direct them to a quiet space if they need to take time out. 

What’s your starting point when thinking about how to ensure your museum is as inclusive as possible for visitors with autism and/or sensory needs?

Consultation! Over the years we’ve partnered and consulted with a number of organisations, individuals, families and autistic adults to understand the barriers posed by the museum and any gaps in our public programme – and how best to tackle these.

Have your ideas evolved about how to create a welcoming environment within the Science Museum? And would you say attitudes have evolved generally within the world of museums?

One of our five core values at the Science Museum is to be ‘Open for All’ – this is our commitment to ensuring that the millions of people who visit or engage with us online feel welcome and see our museum as a place for them.

A key part of this is also broadening the scope of stories we tell in the museum, including recognising and celebrating the contribution of neurodivergent people to STEM subjects, as it’s so important that visitors see themselves reflected in our galleries. 

Attitudes are evolving across the sector and awareness of the potential barriers for autistic visitors and people with sensory needs are improving. There’s more to be done but there’s definitely been a shift in the desire to make museums as inclusive as possible. 

What advice would you give to other operators looking to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment?

My number one tip would always be to involve the groups you want to reach out to in the discussions from the beginning. There will never be a ‘one size fits all’ solution so we need to be flexible and offer a variety of ways visitors can engage with the collection and activities we offer.

Making sure that colleagues have the training, awareness and confidence to support visitors who face a range of access barriers is also incredibly important. A positive interaction with a member of staff is often what elevates a visit and makes visitors keen to return.

We're broadening the scope of stories we tell, including celebrating the contribution of neurodivergent people to STEM subjects. It’s so important that visitors see themselves reflected in our galleries
Matti Wallin
Accessibility Programs Manager, Houston Museum of Natural Science, US
Photo: houston museum of natural science

Houston Museum of Natural Science, in Houston, US, is a Certified Autism Center that offers a range of tools and support for visitors with autism and sensory needs.

How does the Houston Museum of Natural Science support visitors with ASD and sensory needs?

We offer a range of resources at the museum, including visual vocabulary cards, exploration planners, sensory guides, sensory backpacks, and our Access HMNS app.

Our app has a map of the museum to help visitors plan ahead and our sensory backpacks include fidgets, headphones, and sunglasses if our exhibits feel a little loud, bright, or overstimulating.

HMNS also has sensory friendly events where families can visit the museum while the exhibit halls are adjusted to be as sensory-neutral as possible.

Our staff are another great resource – HMNS team members are very accommodating and always willing to assist.

What’s your starting point when thinking about how to ensure the museum is as inclusive as possible?

Your institution can have all the resources in the world available, but they’re not meaningful if your staff don’t know about them or the guests that they serve. Staff training is the most important starting point when thinking about creating an inclusive experience.

Basic disability etiquette, autism awareness, and training about what your institution offers and how it is helpful is key. HMNS is a Certified Autism Center, which means that our staff went through a training module through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education. This has been a really helpful platform to foster a larger culture of compassion among the staff.

If a meltdown takes place in the museum and that’s what the guest needs to move through in order to carry on with their day, we understand. If a person needs to be directed to a quiet space or provided ear defenders, we know what to do.

There’s an argument that if you can offer accommodations during sensory-friendly events, you should offer them at all times. What are your thoughts?

Creating resources to be used during everyday visits and building exhibits and spaces so they’re inherently inclusive is obviously the ultimate goal, but I also see the benefit in continuing to offer sensory-friendly events. Some people with autism and learning disabilities can feel judged by other visitors, so it’s nice to offer a time where they can be free of that feeling and be themselves.

By offering both options, you put the choice in your guests’ hands.

How have your ideas on inclusion evolved over the years?

It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, and if you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve met one person with autism. I’ve learned to not overgeneralise and let our visitors decide what works best for them and then give them the tools to make that happen.

Do you have anything to add?

Making your space inclusive and sensory-friendly is helpful for a lot of people, not just people with autism and sensory sensitivities. We’ve received positive comments from guests who get migraines, are prone to seizures, and younger guests who might be afraid of sensory components in our exhibits.

I’ve never had a visitor without a disability complain about an accommodation that HMNS has made. Creating an inclusive environment supports all audiences.

If a meltdown takes place in the museum, we understand. If a person needs to be directed to a quiet space, we know what to do
Houston Museum of Natural Science is a Certified Autism Center / Photo: houston museum of natural science
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