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What if we looked at neurodiversity and museums differently?

What if we looked at neurodiversity and museums differently?

Posted on:

17/03/21, 13:42

It’s taken a long to get to a stage where there’s time to write a blog about what we do! Demand and capacity have meant that we’ve been hamster-wheeling for the last couple of years, but with such a fab team on board, I’m hoping to make regular space to share what we’re up to, and ask for your comments, through this blog!

Each blog will focus on different aspects of our work – hope it’s interesting and of use!

I’m going to start with a new project we’ve just been successful in acquiring funding for, that’s very close to my heart – The Neurodiverse Museum (generously funded by Art Fund).

You may have seen activity growing across the heritage sector (and in other areas of life) specifically for neurodiverse people – individuals whose state of being is different from the neurotypical experience (this encompasses autism, ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia etc). Whilst this is to be applauded in starting to consider the needs of neurodiverse visitors, there is a concern that the resulting outputs are often not driven by neurodiverse people themselves and as a result, do not, on the whole, meet need.

Most activity to date in this area has focused on the neurodiversity of autistic people (and our project is no different although our aim is to ensure that this is just the start of this work). What tends to happen is that projects and delivery is specifically for children created from the perspectives of their (usually) neurotypical and allistic (non-autistic) parents.

As a consequence, the resulting activity is exclusionary and extremely limited. It has a focus on quiet hours, segregated activity, and provision which is other than the normal museum delivery. What if you’re an autistic adult with a keen and in-depth interest on a specific branch of archaeological thinking? What if you’re an autistic child who can’t stand the thought of being consumed by the noise of a busy museum, but would rather stick pins in your eyes than do “another art project” and would rather get stuck into the natural history collection on floor 3, complete with access to the curator and the opportunity to ask her questions whilst no-one else is about? And what if you’re a non-verbal autistic adult, or you’re situational mute (you find certain situations or people so stressful that speaking becomes impossible)? How do you share your thoughts, opinions, questions about visiting the museum and the collections you see when you’re there? And what if you’re an autistic adult and you’d expected to see your experience reflected through the displays and activity of the museum / heritage venue? Where are the collections and discussions which represent autistic experiences and support a dialogue which shifts the perception of what it is to be autistic from the existing predominantly caricature view, into reality?

In the rush to ensure we support these audiences, have we forgotten the very reason we want to deliver this provision? Surely, our aims are to provide a high quality, purposeful experience for all, and to do so inclusively! If what we end up doing is effectively saying, “we’re only going to look at delivering for autistic children, we’re only going to do that by asking their parents what they want, and we’re only going to achieve our aims by providing one-dimensional, segregated activity”, we’re not only ignoring the potential of our venues, collections, and people in responding to the needs and demands of our real and potential autistic audiences, but we do so by actively excluding them from the discussion and their own heritage.

But what if we took a different approach? What if we ensured that autistic people – autistic adults with a lived experience of what it is to be autistic as a child, young person and adult, as well as autistic children and young people – were at the heart of our development and delivery concerning neurodiversity and particularly that in relationship to provision for autistic people? What if we asked #ActuallyAutistic people how museums can respond to their needs? How adaptations can be made to make their pre, during and post visitor experience more accessible? How we can better reflect autistic experience through our displays, collecting, and provision? How we can open up our collections and the people who work with them to provide a more engaging, relevant experience? And how we can translate this into supporting autistic people into the workforce?

By doing so, surely we seek to ensure that the actual needs of individuals are being met. Autistic people, as with all individuals, are not a single homogenous community with the same needs as each other, but rather with a range of different needs resulting in different responses to support their access to museums and their collections. The only way to ensure suitable provision is provided is to ask! And ask a lot!

It is true to say that there are some generalisations which can be made, but these generalisations currently seem to be restricting the very strengths of museums which many autistic people would like to access. But because “something is happening” we’re not stepping back and questioning if that something is ethical, appropriate, participatory and non-discriminatory.

So The Neurodiverse Museum aims to begin the process of addressing these questions and shifting the perception of what it is to be neurodiverse and how museums and wider heritage venues can respond. We will set up a virtual panel of autistic individuals to share information, discuss key elements of museum provision and their ability to adjust and become inclusive, and help steer not only this project, but our future activity in this field.

We will also conduct research to establish the current picture of autism in museums, including wider heritage provision and other neurodiversity. This research is already demonstrating that the inclusion of the autistic voice, provision for autistic adults, and inclusionary rather than exclusionary provision, is few and far between.

We will also create an action research case study working with the British Golf Museum in St Andrews (currently undergoing redevelopment) to establish clear best practice for working with autistic audiences and how to adapt provision with a more inclusive and relevant approach.

Finally, we will create resources and training to support the sector’s understanding of neurodiversity as a whole, and more specifically, autism, and increase the confidence and understanding of how to develop and deliver a creative, high quality and relevant offer as a result.

This project is only the start of this activity. Our aim is to use the findings from this work to enact a sea change across the sector which begins to adapt perceptions towards neurodiversity, increases relevant and appropriate engagement opportunities, and eventually has an impact on the workforce.

For more information, please contact our Director, Dr Justine Reilly at

Link to the article on Sporting Heritage site

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