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March 2012 MAC Workshop: Museum Professionals Share Their Experiences of Offering Programs to Visitors who have Autism

on Fri, 03/23/2012 - 1:14pm

Photos courtesy of Danielle Linzer

Written by Sarah Crean and Cindy VandenBosch on March 27, 2012

On March 7th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum Access Consortium hosted a workshop focused on providing more welcoming experiences to visitors who have autism.  This was the fourth workshop in a series of twelve that are being offered free of charge to representatives from cultural institutions, thanks to generous support from the FAR Fund.  

The first three workshops in the 2011-2012 season included clinicians and seasoned professionals who have extensive experience working with people - and especially youth - who have autism, including Irene Cavanagh from Eden II Programs, Dr. Gil Tippy from the Rebecca School, and Aaron Feinstein from Actionplay.  The goal of the fourth and final workshop of this 2011-2012 season was to go from theory to practice: to provide a forum for audience members to share their own experiences related to creating and adapting programs for visitors who have autism.

Seventy people were in attendance at the March 7th workshop from a wide range of cultural institutions, including  historic sites such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, art museums like the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and  El Museo del Barrio, and outdoor sites, such as the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Central Park Zoo.  Representatives even came from outside the city, including the Connecticut-based Yale Center for British Art, the Bruce Museum, and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum; the Montclair Art Museum and Princeton University Art Museum from New Jersey, and the Long Island Children's Museum.  Professionals from the Office of Travel Training at the New York City Department of Education, Heart Share Human Services of New York, the Art of Autism, and other educational institutions and service providers were also well-represented in the room.

The two-hour workshop kicked off with speakers from the Museum at Eldridge Street, the New York Transit Museum, and the Queens Museum of Art, who presented on their experiences of creating and implementing programs for visitors who have autism. Following their presentations and a question and answer period, the room split out into five working groups to share their own techniques and practices, as well as questions and challenges.  At the end of the workshop, representatives from each group shared out with the entire room.  This post outlines highlights from the workshop.  Please stay tuned to this blog, as we will soon be posting an audio recording and transcript from the session.

Museum at Eldridge Street: Getting Started

The first presenter, Sarah Verity, Director of Visitor Services from the Museum at Eldridge Street, talked about what it's been like to take that first step and begin to develop programming for students on the spectrum and educate staff about autism.  The purpose of her presentation was to provide perspective and encouragement to museums that haven't yet taken that step.  As Sarah explained, the Museum did welcome visitors with autism previously but had no formal program and no one on staff with any formal special education training, a common story for many museums. Thanks to programmatic support from MAC and participation in this three-year grant as a case study site, “We started educating ourselves, assembled a small team, and attended the first MAC workshops.”

After forming a team made up of a few full-time staff members, interns, and volunteer docents, the group set out to observe programs offered for people with developmental disabilities at other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Discoveries Program, the ArtAccess Program at the Queens Museum of Art, the Miracle Project, and the Create Ability program at MoMA.  These observations eased the anxiety of the MES team and helped them to develop a baseline level of knowledge, think more creatively about their own programs, and, most of all, improve confidence in their own abilities as educators. Seeing the programs at other museums was a “really important step.”

The Museum at Eldridge Street established a partnership with one local school, P94M, in the fall, and has been working with two classes of students  -5th/6th grade and 7th/8th grade- with Asperger’s Syndrome. As requested by the teachers, the MES team built on an existing offering and created a program for the classes with an immigration theme. Sarah explained that they visited the P94M classes in advance to meet the principal and teachers and observe the students in their school environment and gauge their respective abilities.  Some of the team members' questions were answered just by observing the classroom environment, including whether students would understand abstract concepts, how verbal the students would be, etc.

After meeting with the teachers and observing the students in their classroom environment, the MES staff returned to the school to prepare students for their visit to the Museum at Eldridge Street.  Because they understood the importance of visual tools, they walked the class through a powerpoint presentation with images of the street, entrance, hallways, sanctuary, and other parts of the historic landmark building that students would see. They also brought handling objects so the students would have a tactile orientation of artifacts they would encounter while on-site at the museum.

Next came the actual visit to the museum.  For P94M’s first visit, staff members created a visual schedule and check list for students to have with them while at the museum.  Many of the images were pulled from the pre-visit slideshow presentation so that they would be familiar to the students.  The actual structure of the program itself was not that different from a typical tour but provided more visual and tactile prompts and reinforcements.

Museum staff referenced ideas and concepts that they had introduced to students in the classroom. The Museum was careful to pay considerable attention to transitions, and employed concepts from the emotional literacy curriculum that the teachers encouraged the MES team to incorporate.  The Museum also included an art activity, which they normally haven't done with school programs in the past. Says Sarah, this has been a “really positive experience. Our anxiety was eased by meeting the students. We are looking forward to broadening the audiences we work with, and learning from colleagues at other institutions.”

In the coming year, the Museum at Eldridge Street will be piloting their program not just with students who have Asperger's Syndrome, but with a broader range of students on the autism spectrum.  Sarah also thinks all of the Education programs will benefit as a result of this experience.

New York Transit Museum: Developing Programs that Focus on Social and Communication Skills

Lynette Morse, who oversees educational programs at the New York Transit Museum, introduced the unique physical context in which she develops programs for children along the autism spectrum, a historic subway station in downtown Brooklyn. The New York Transit Museum has two distinct floors and a collection of 20 vintage train cars. Each train car is its own tactile learning environment.

Lynette explained that the Transit Museum has considerable experience working with adults who have autism, and wanted to better serve the overall population. The Museum has three programs for children with autism, including an after-school program, “Subway Sleuths".  Last year, she and two collaborative team teachers from a local public school taught the program and received positive results. This year, the museum joined forces with a speech language pathologist and a special education teacher from the NEST program at NYU. They began to think about “Subway Sleuths” in a very different way. Lynette noted that museum educators are trained to always be thinking about content, but now, “We are turning this on its head.”

Lynette and her colleagues began to employ concepts from the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) model, using the students’ interest in trains as a way to work on other skills, like communication, that are challenging. The New York Transit Museum content is layered on top of selected RDI activities. She notes that “the kids know far more about trains than we do,” so the point is to use that interest as a gateway to other topics.(TIP: Lynette recommended a few books that had been very helpful to her and her colleagues in the development of their programs, including Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children (2002) by Steven E. Gutstein and Relationship Development Intervention with Children, Adolescents, and Adults (2002) by Steven E. Gutstein and Rachelle K. Sheeley.)

The New York Transit Museum also has a “Travel Training” program, which teaches independent travel and life skills. After realizing that high school groups were already coming to them specifically to use the station as a “safe space” where they could learn to ride the subway, the Museum partnered with the District 75 Office of Travel Training in order to develop a structured program.  Students learn how to swipe their Metrocard, where to stand on the platform, and even how to react to rush hour crowds, a pan handler, or a performer in a subway car.  These skills are essential because the ultimate objective is for students to transition to adulthood and become independent travelers, and hopefully obtain a job some day that they can get to and from on their own.

First, this Travel Training program was piloted with high school students in partnership with the Office of Travel Training, but then they realized that there was a need for a similar program at earlier ages.  Now, thanks to participation in this three-year program with support from the FAR Fund, the New York Transit Museum is implementing the travel training program for junior high school students.  And this time around, the Museum is also involving parents by including a Saturday program, which involves students practicing riding trains in the actual subway system.

For the Museum’s Guided School Programs, which are normally one-time, content heavy visits, the objective is to make participants and staff feel comfortable and competent. Participants receive a visual schedule sheet with the structure of the tour. As “Train Detectives,” they visit four trains, discovering seats, handholds, etc. The schedule structures the program, and increases students’ vocabulary and their confidence as they move from car to car. Notes Lynette, “Be conscious of language! Sometimes questions (especially open-ended) can be too much.”

Queens Museum of Art: Socialization as the Main Goal

Michelle Lopez and Jennifer Oppito-Candiano, who work together to implement programs and initiatives for people who have autism at the Queens Museum of Art, explained how socialization is the main goal in their work with children along the autism spectrum, and that includes building a sense of community. They want to spread the word that museum educators are “people in your neighborhood”. The Queens Museum of Art has a six-year partnership with the Queens Library, serving populations with less access to museums, including those with special needs. The Museum also works with other cultural institutions serving children with special needs. They see themselves as an “inviting institution” and believe that community collaboration is crucial, especially with families.

Michelle and Jennifer walked educators through the tools they have developed to prepare for a variety of educational settings. The goal is to pass on life skills, especially those useful for socialization.

Both with formal training in applied behavioral analysis therapy, Michelle and Jennifer utilize “positive behavior support”, a research based strategy that encourages positive behavior. They note that every behavior has a function. The point is not to take negative behavior personally, rather to re-direct it in a positive direction. It is important to create a general set of rules for expected behavior. The language should be positive and precise regarding what is expected. Try to pair the language with a visual cue.

It is also important to create a schedule, which minimizes anxiety and serves as a means of motivation. Students have a sense of control because they check items off on their copy of the schedule. It’s also helpful to have a copy of the schedule that everyone can look at together. Nothing fancy is needed. The educator can use a piece of paper, tape and a wall. Make the schedule concise, and then refer back to it throughout the program.

Create a visual vocabulary to support visual and tactile learners. This helps to organize thoughts and focus attention, and is especially useful in the gallery/ art-making component of the program. Isolating concepts visually can help to teach abstract and conceptual ideas, which can be a challenge, especially for those along the autism spectrum. Communication boards are an example of a tool that can help convey visual vocabulary. (TIP: “Thinking in Pictures” is a useful reference book for working with visual learners.)

Michelle and Jennifer also had a number of suggestions for group art projects, such as making sure there is no “down time” at the beginning of the program, separating materials into baskets so students can make requests, and setting up the studio in a way that encourages successful socialization and teacher facilitation. Remember that art-making should be appropriate to the students’ developmental level. Projects should take no more than three to four steps, with only one step for troubleshooting/abstract thinking.

Art projects are a great tool for socialization. They offer an opportunity for developing skills, including taking turns and listening. Topics like the blending of colors can be used to talk about friendships. The goal is to provide multi-sensory support for successful social behavior. This helps students build relationships and develop skills so they can indulge in lifelong learning in their communities.

Questions for Presenters

Workshop members had a few moments to ask questions before breaking up into small groups.

One participant asked for more clarification on why using a multi-sensory as opposed to a language-based approach was preferable when developing exhibits and programs.  Presenters explained that for young people on the autism spectrum, socialization is what is most affected. To engage students- you need to get to them through their senses.

Another participant asked whether writing should be part of a museum access program.  The answer is: it depends. You often don’t know a lot about a school before they visit. Sometimes it’s more helpful to use images instead of words. Depending on the group, you can provide them with the outlet if they choose to take it but the panelists agreed that it shouldn't be a requirement.

Also, when engaging in object inquiry, consider making declarative statements that students can build on, as opposed to asking lots of general questions. Or, only ask targeted questions. Questions can be overwhelming. As Lynette Morse explained, “We don’t want people to feel frustrated when they leave.”

Questions and Challenges Raised by Participants (for ongoing discussion)

Fear that our staff won’t know what to do. Need for staff training. But is staff training expensive?
How do we know the actual challenges kids face? Visual, physical, aural, etc.
How do you train volunteers to work with visitors who have disabilities?
How do you prepare before the visit?
What do you do when teachers do not fully disclose information about students with disabilities?
First impressions of students can be very intense>> large, visually overwhelming space, voices echoing, etc.
Museums can have too much stimuli on Saturdays when some programs might want to visit
What should educators do when they visit an inclusive classroom? Should you bring a prepared visual schedule even if there’s only one student on the Autism spectrum?
How do you edit/add layers of language and texture in exhibit design to build on the already interdisciplinary character of exhibits?
We need to remember that special needs terminology separates people.  We are all people of different abilities.

These questions and challenges will help frame the planning for future MAC workshops.

Best Practice Suggestions from Participants

When Preparing:

Evaluate your institution
Observe other access programs
Utilize MAC workshops
Develop a workshop for all staff (1-2 hours) with the help of a consultant
Videos on autism are available
Have information in advance about the group visiting- ask about any special needs on registration form. Have they visited the museum before? What was successful?
Set aside specific dates/times for access programs
Match groups with museum educators
Communicate with teacher what is to be expected
Establish objects to be seen and a schedule, and send/gather images

During the Program

Small things can make a big difference
Find a quiet/intimate space to welcome the group
Use a visual schedule
Use sensory tactile objects- make a personal connection to the object
Use simple language
Hands-on activity in a gallery
Connect to classroom content
TOUCH OBJECTS/BAG-O-TRICKS! (bring more than you may need)
When doing art projects- show end result if possible.
No required writing- encourage multiple forms of communication.

General Tips

Nurture collaborations/partnerships with other museums, parents, schools, service providers, and other community institutions
Repetition is really successful. You can develop relationships when people visit more than once. Repetition yields a sense of ownership, community, and comfort
Family programs are also useful for building links with students and community
Get support, feedback and advice from parents and teachers
Think about “Reinventing” communication

Other Resources for Museum Educators

Developmental Disabilities Council (one in every borough): Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Manhattan
Every school district has an art director for Picture Communication Boards

Closing Feedback and Advice from Experts

In closing, a few experts from the disabilities field were invited to share their feedback and insights with the museum representatives. 

Laurie Yankowitz, Vice President of HeartShare Human Services of New York, responded enthusiastically, "I'm enthralled by this event.  I think it's so wonderful that you're all so interested in making your museum spaces more welcoming for our special needs populations."  She also shared some specific feedback, which included the importance of showing the finished product at the beginning for hands-on art projects.  She also said, "If you have someone in your group who is not engaging, start with a finished project and have them take it a part..."  In terms of facilitating language, "I thought there were some great tips. Language is so taxing cognitively for people with autism.  You can start a sentence and leave a few words off and that can help you develop a rapport..."

Peggy Groce, Director of the Office of Travel Training for the Department of Education in New York City, provided the following words of advice and support: "A couple of things: I would not focus on their special needs.  I would focus on the fact that they are kids or they are adults who have a need to use the museum, who have a need to be treated with respect, who have a need to learn and to engage with everybody else.  We may have to take a different path to get them engaged but that's the burden on us.  We  have the special need and that is to learn how to engage them... I think that's important to know because that can reduce some of our fear and can reduce some of our anxiety.  They're just people.  How do we reach them and what do we do?  The second thing is to be very clear in your purpose: Why are you doing it?... Is it because it's required? What is your reason in terms of running your museum and wanting everyone to gain what you have and to participate?  Be very clear in your purpose and have a small one to start because you need to feel as successful as the people coming in do, so that you can all have a better time."

An audio recording of the March 7th workshop will be available within the next week.  Please sign up for our email list to be the first to know when it's posted.