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Third Citywide Museum Access Consortium Workshop: Strategies for Providing Welcoming Experiences in a Museum Setting

on Thu, 02/23/2012 - 4:45am

Photos courtesy of Danielle Linzer

Written on 2/22/2011 by Sarah Crean

Addressing a packed house of museum educators and other museum professionals, Gil Tippy, PsyD, Clinical Director and Founder of the Rebecca School in Manhattan, and Aaron Feinstein, Director of Actionplay, presented the Developmental, Individual-difference, Relationship-based (DIR) model for working with children with autism. The presentation and follow-up discussion took place on Tuesday, February 7th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Educators from fine art, history, science and other types of museums across the New York City metro-area were in attendance.

A newer approach within the autism field, the DIR model can help museum professionals enhance the interaction between their institutions and children on the autism spectrum, regardless of the model being used in the overall treatment of students. In his presentation, Dr. Tippy explained how the DIR model facilitates the educational and community enrichment goals of cultural institutions. Aaron Feinstein discussed his work with children who are on the autism spectrum at the Brooklyn Museum, and helped seminar participants to understand the world, as experienced by children who have autism, through an experiential exercise. According to Dr. Tippy, the ultimate objective of working with children in a museum setting is to create a truly welcoming environment. Dr. Tippy stressed that we want children along the autism spectrum to receive the message that “the world is a beautiful place and I want to invite you into this beautiful world.” He also urged attendees to consider the fact that, “autistic children are often not appreciated for the content of their mind and their thoughts.”

Why Museums Matter

Dr. Gil Tippy began his discussion on a personal note by explaining that the Met “saved his life” as a young person because it showed him “how it was possible to live.” Dr. Tippy has a deep respect for cultural institutions, and believes that they have an important role to play in opening doors for and connecting with children along the autism spectrum. He noted that, “experiences need to be emotionally meaningful for the kids we are talking about.” Cultural institutions have much to offer in this context. Dr. Tippy walked seminar participants through the mission statements of their respective institutions in order to demonstrate how their overall objectives are directly relevant to serving children with autism. Mission statements of museums that participated in the seminar include language such as:

  • stimulate appreciation
  • actively engage children in educational and entertaining experiences
  • act as a bridge
  • be dynamic, innovative, and welcoming
  • foster inter-group exchange
  • provide personally meaningful engaging encounters
  • offer programs for children and families not traditionally served by cultural institutions
  • through personal experiences forge emotional connections between visitors and the content
  • build upon the affection, engagement, and knowledge of visitors
  • provide art exhibitions and educational experiences that promote the appreciation and enjoyment of art, support the creative efforts of artists, and enhance quality of life
  • explore human connections
  • do this in a welcoming environment
  • we want our audiences to engage with art in playful and experimental ways


Understanding the DIR Approach to Working with Children with Autism

First developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan 50 years ago, the DIR model has three core components in its analysis:


D” = Developmental—A child’s maturational processes work together with the child’s environment to shape development
I” = Individual Differences—Every Child has unique physiological, neurological, psychological, communication, motor, and sensory processing patterns
R” = Relationship-based-parent/caretaker relationships play a vital role in shaping development, learning, social and emotional growth

According to Dr. Tippy, autism is a neuro-developmental disorder of relating and communicating. Children along the autism scale have varying degrees of difficulty in comprehending the spatial relationship between their bodies and the rest of the world. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to think in the abstract, which is a critical stage in early childhood development. Says Dr. Tippy, “If you can’t feel where your body is in the world, you can’t think in the abstract. The whole question of abstract thinking is what puts you on the autism scale.”


Echoing the words of Irene Cavanagh from her presentations in the fall, Dr. Tippy reiterated that, “If you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum, you've met one child on the autism spectrum.” With this understanding in mind, there are certain patterns that do emerge. For example, children on the autism spectrum tend to be found between the fourth and fifth stages of early childhood development; between the ability to do real action problem solving and the ability to use ideas and words in a creative and meaningful way. Children typically move through these stages between the ages of two and three, which is an important piece of information for museum educators who are developing appropriate programs for children with autism.

Children who have autism can also have other challenges related to difficulties with spatial understanding and abstract thinking:

  • Inability to put together a motor plan
  • Balance and coordination
  • Language—children tend to understand more than they are able to communicate
  • Difficulty with being expressive and receptive
  • Visual challenges, especially with spatial processing and negotiating the world visually
  • Sensory modulation and processing issues

Creating Programs that are Appropriate for Children Along the Autism Spectrum

Dr. Tippy urges museum educators to take a straightforward and loving approach to developing programs for children who have autism. He points out that educators should follow good early childhood education principles when thinking about program development. “Treat kids on the autism spectrum like you would treat kids that are developmentally young.” In general, museums need to create a low demand environment for autistic children. They should think about ways to present collection items in different ways, especially visually. It is helpful to make items available to handle. Tactile projects are especially useful.

On a deeper level, museum educators need to ask themselves: “What kind of person am I? What am I looking for from kids?” Dr. Tippy reminds us that “it’s a basic human right that children should play. We want our art to be playful.” And he urges educators to keep their eyes on the big picture. “The point of life is to be happy.” He reminds us that museums can and do contribute enormously to enhancing our ability to celebrate life.

Lessons Learned at the Brooklyn Museum

Aaron Feinstein, director of Actionplay, discussed his experience developing programs for children from the Rebecca School at the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Feinstein echoed Dr. Tippy’s recommendation that museum educators focus on creating a positive and welcoming experience for children above all else. He asked educators to bear in mind that an important part of being welcoming is not being overwhelming.

The Actionplay approach to program development has three components:

  1. Assessment of the group that is coming to visit
  2. Coaching the staff based on the nature of the group—not a one size fits all approach
  3. Transformation—asking the question, how do we help the museum invite guests with autism and developmental differences

Understanding the nature of autism is key to developing a successful program. One of the great challenges with autism is that the label can have many meanings. For instance, emotional difficulties are clearly different from difficulties of negotiating space but both are associated with autism.

When developing a program for 9 to 13 year-old autistic children, Mr. Feinstein explained that Actionplay used a standard program for two to three year olds as a base due to the developmental lags mentioned by Dr. Tippy. He recommended that educators should generally focus on experiential learning, as opposed to more traditional methods, such as lecturing to students. “Less talking, more action. The more experiential, the better.” But he was careful to point out that “more action” should not mean more chaos.

Educators took part in an experiential exercise with Mr. Feinstein so they could have a sense of the intensity of physical and emotional sensations experienced by children on the autism spectrum. They also had a chance to ask their own questions. Educators were concerned, for instance, about how much they could push children who have autism with inquiry in various learning scenarios. This is a hard question to answer because of the wide range of ages and abilities involved. Dr. Tippy explained that if he is trying to move a young person developmentally in his practice, he does push but his sessions can also last hours at a time with one young person.

In contrast to treatment, Dr. Tippy indicated that pushing kids on the spectrum may not be the goal of offering enriching museum programs. Rather, in his opinion, “the goal is to get kids going in a lovely back and forth continuous flow.” Educators should think twice before assuming that meaningful learning experiences cannot be achieved. For instance, a key goal for a history museum is teaching empathy for other human beings in different time periods. Dr. Tippy pointed out that this is not in conflict with the objectives for working with children with autism.

Educators learned other tips in the question and answer session. For example, if there is an opportunity to go outside, it can be incredibly helpful for children on the spectrum. It can help them regulate their physical reactions. One of the best things a museum can do is create a “safe space” for kids where they can regain a sense of equilibrium. Says Mr. Feinstein, “In the midst of the program, you want to create a place that is safe, a place to chill out" in case students want to take a break from the center of activity.

Mr. Feinstein urged educators to ask themselves how they define “success” as they are developing a program. When working with children who have autism, and perhaps all children, the point is that the museum experience is not a test. It’s about the experience. “How do you define success? Is it engagement in the art? Did the kids work well together? Did they smile? Did they grow?”

Both Dr. Tippy and Mr. Feinstein clearly find working with autistic children to be profoundly rewarding. As Mr. Feinstein said, “Children with special needs lift our consciousness.” Audience members appeared to share their enthusiasm. One participant responded, “Thank you so much. I found this so enlightening.”

An audio recording of Dr. Gil Tippy’s and Aaron Feinstein’s February 7th presentation will be posted on the MAC page.  Please sign up for the MAC e-newsletter by clicking here.

More on Dr. Gil Tippy’s research and work can be found at and more on Actionplay can be found at