GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Crowded, noisy environments, like zoos and museums, can be stressful and make it difficult for some people on the autism spectrum to enjoy learning. In an effort to create a more inviting environment for all, the Florida Museum of Natural History hosts Museum for Me programs multiple times a year that allow some visitors early access to exhibits in a peaceful and less crowded environment.
The events are open to adults and children on the autism spectrum and their friends, families and caregivers. Museumgoers are immersed in a calmer atmosphere as overhead sounds are changed to soothe the space, and strobe lighting is suspended to help those with light sensitivity. Special sensory maps are provided to guests with information on how each exhibit has been modified to prepare them ahead of each section. In addition, museum staff members and volunteers are available to help with any questions and provide other assistance. For those who start to feel overwhelmed and need a quiet space, education classrooms are converted to reflection rooms, complete with dimmed lighting and educational books.
“We feel like we’re making an impact,” said Catherine Carey, operations coordinator at the Florida Museum. “Specifically, when we get feedback from parents who say things like how it was the first time their child actually enjoyed the cave or sat down to explore, because it was so pleasant and not overcrowded.”
The concept for Museum for Me was created by Casey Wooster in 2016, who was earning her master’s degree in museum studies at the University of Florida. Tasked with designing a hypothetical museum program, she found inspiration in her brother, who is autistic.
“While today more people know about autism spectrum disorder, many did not while we were growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. I wished to create a museum experience accessible for all. Something my brother and I would want to attend together as children,” said Wooster, who is now a collections assistant at the UF George A. Smathers Libraries.
During her research, she learned about many programs from other natural history and science museums that were sensory-friendly and provided inclusive environments for those with autism and their families. Wooster proposed the idea for Museum for Me to the Florida Museum’s education department, and the first event took place April 2, 2017, to coincide with Autism Awareness Month. The most recent edition, held in August, was the 10th event.
Although it began as an annual event, popularity and demand led to the program expanding to multiple dates throughout the year. The museum focuses on maintaining a calm and subdued atmosphere for visitors to enjoy the museum at their own pace without it being too busy.
One visitor said it was the “first time I could visit and not feel accusing eyes on the back of my head for how my child is behaving. The kids can just live and enjoy, and I feel that he could come back during the regular hours.”
To provide more information about autism spectrum disorder, representatives from the UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), UF College of Education and UF’s Equitable Learning Technology Lab participate in various events to talk with attendees about autism awareness and provide educational resources.
With the arrival of each new featured exhibit to the museum, representatives from UF CARD perform a walk-through to gauge any issues the exhibit might pose for those who are autistic as well as to train staff members on how to provide a more sensory-friendly experience.
“We may give suggestions, including the layout of the exhibit, lighting, noise and other environmental factors like signage and safety considerations,” said Danielle Liso, assistant director of UF CARD. “I think the events are mostly an opportunity for people with autism and their loved ones to enjoy a judgement-free zone that accommodates special needs as much as possible. Events such as Museum for Me shine a light on the importance of autism awareness and acceptance.”
The College of Education has also utilized these events to see how technology can be used to better help autistic people. Researchers conducted a recent study in which families were provided with a virtual-reality headset that enabled autistic relatives to take a simulated tour of the Florida Museum before coming in to visit. The study determined that allowing participants to virtually interact with artifacts and prepare for visiting the space helped them to manage anxiety and lessened worry for their next in-person trip.
“The creation of Museum for Me was just the perfect storm of a good idea, solid research and the backing of the museum administration,” Carey said. “Our own museum staff has taken the event to heart, passing on information, providing feedback and supporting in any way they can.”
The program continues to foster a love of learning for all members of the community. With a rotation of new exhibits throughout the year, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy learning and experience a variety of scientific topics.
The next Museum for Me event will be held Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/event/museum-for-me-autism.