Autism Friendly Museum Project

Making museums autism friendly by beating the meltdown factor
Published in The Age, September 5, 2015

By Peter Barrett

Autism Friendly Museum Project
Rodney and Valerie Start with their children Jonah, 11, Leoie, 9, Jayson, 6, and Simeon, 1. Photo: Joe Armao

Even the most mundane family outings, such as going shopping, can present unusual headaches for Rodney Start and wife Valerie. With two of their four children on the autism spectrum they must spell out exactly what it is that they’re going to buy and, more importantly, what they’re not. “We’ve had this happen on numerous occasions,” says Start, explaining how one of his son’s fixations on bubble mixture has resulted in supermarket “meltdowns” when denied his prize. “We’ve been in some places, in shopping centres, and our youngest has had a meltdown because he couldn’t get what he wanted and we’ve just had people looking daggers at us and making comments. As a parent that’s really stressful.”

Which is why Start, a long-time employee at Melbourne Museum, is excited to contribute to an innovative program making his workplace more accessible to families with children on the spectrum. The Autism Friendly Museum Project uses online “social scripts” to help prepare parents and children for visits that could otherwise turn out distressing. “With children on the autism spectrum you have to plan in advance, you have to forewarn them,” says Start. “They don’t like the unexpected, it catches them off guard; they can’t process the different options.”

The illustrated stories explain how to behave in the space – from how the entry queue works to where to go if you need a run around. An accompanying “sensory map” shows parents hotspots to avoid if children are particularly sensitive to busy areas, loud noises, multimedia or low light – common issues for people on the spectrum.

Project co-ordinator Priscilla Gaff says eight families were instrumental in providing feedback about what worked and what didn’t. “And then they told us other little things that we don’t notice would be an issue,” she says. “For example, we’ve got a beautiful plane hanging in our foyer and for lots of kids who come in they’re terrified that that plane’s going to fall on them.” Once identified, triggers were worked into the script, too.

Melbourne Museum developed the project in partnership with the Department of Early Childhood Development and Amaze, Victoria’s peak autism body. Amaze CEO Fiona Sharkie says one in 100 children in Australia are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, a developmental neurological condition that can produce life-long challenges with social interaction and communication and certain fixated behaviour and special interests. There is no known cause or cure.

“The great thing about museums doing this is our constituency does have special interests they are going to particularly want to go to museums,” she says.

The project, which includes extensive staff training, recently won a Museums Australia (Victoria) award and is in the process of being introduced to sister museums Scienceworks and the Immigration Museum. Other organisations with autism spectrum programs include Sovereign Hill, Village Cinemas and Northland Shopping Centre.

Back at Melbourne Museum, Rodney Start hopes the project will give other families confidence in knowing there are places to go where they can feel safe and accepted. “The museum has so much to offer – we’d like as many people as possible to come and enjoy that.”

Read the story on Fairfax Media here.