“Ironically… “access” [in museums] refers to the people who are frequently excluded from full participation in our offerings.”
–Danielle Linzer Manager of Access and Community Programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
When we talk about accessibility in museums, we are striving to welcome, include, incorporate, and collaborate with people who may otherwise feel unwelcome or physically be excluded from public institutions that inherently have a responsibility to the public to be inclusive. Some of these people who may feel excluded or unwelcome are children with intellectual disabilities and their families.
Children with Intellectual Disabilities
There are numerous statistics out there in the big wide world floating around about how many people in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of intellectual disability. Intellectual or cognitive disabilities may include Down Syndrome, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Dementia. This term also refers to more mild forms such as Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, or Dyscalculia and other learning abilities. This a broad concept. Somewhere in the vein of 2.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability. This breaks down to somewhere between 2-3% of children having a diagnoses while 1 in 88 American children are estimated to be on the autism spectrum. 
For children with special needs including intellectual disabilities going on outings anywhere can potentially be difficult. Museums are intended to be public spaces, but for the same reasons many of us love them, they can easily be anxiety-producing environments. Children with intellectual disabilities such as autism, might struggle to communicate or have auditory and visual processing difficulties. They can become easily overwhelmed with stimuli that is omnipresent in a museum. Crowds can become overwhelming. Unexpected movements, loud or low noises, flickering or bright lights, or mechanical buzzing might all be disturbing to someone with a heightened sensory system to the point where they are unable to function. 
It is a relief that I do not feel compelled to convince my fellow peers in the field of the importance of acceptance, inclusion, and tolerance in our line of work. Children with cognitive disabilities may behave in ways that challenge non-disabled adults’ beliefs about how children should behave, especially in public spaces such as the museum. They might make loud noises or “act out.” But ultimately, the museum is as much their space as it is any other person’s.  Taking kids to a museum might already be a challenging task without having to worry about societal pressure, judgment and ridicule of others if a child is not behaving in an “expected” or “appropriate” way.
Capabilities of Museum Education
It seems almost silly to say, but children that have intellectual disabilities are still capable of learning! Really, the Museum’s informal education practice lends itself incredibly well to engaging these audiences in meaningful experiences while fostering learning. In my research of this topic all of the tips and strategies for teaching kids with learning and intellectual disabilities are reflective of the same tips and strategies we aim to practice in Museum Education.
Some of these methods include:
-Break down tasks into small steps, introducing one step at a time
-Be straightforward and clear with directions
-Use a multi-sensory approach including visual images and auditory descriptions
-Implement Hands-On experiences
-Use eye contact, voice inflection, and gestures to help highlight significant points
-Preview experiences: allow participants to know what is coming next
-Give immediate feedback
-Be mindful of making transitions clear 
Children’s Museums across the country seem to be leading the way in the field by consciously implementing various programs specifically for kids with intellectual disabilities and their families. These programs may include things like opening their doors earlier or staying open later to offer quieter and less crowded experiences. Museums might offer pre-visit materials that are designed to help children prepare for their visit visually and might map out sound levels of exhibits. Some might provide adaptive resources to use during the visit like noise reducing headphones or visual transition timers. Sensory specific programs also provide lighting, temperature, and sound adjustments in exhibitions while also creating relaxing “cool down” spaces. Some might invite specialists and provide other resources for families to talk with during these low-stress times. 
Questions for Consideration
All of these things sound great, resourceful, and mindful of the audiences they are trying to serve! But there are 18,000 museums in the country and only 56 offer Autism Spectrum Disorders programing. How do we make this so every museum in the country offers programing or resources for kids with intellectual disabilities?
Children’s museums seem to lend themselves well to creating these programs due to the nature of their collections, exhibitions, and desired audiences. How do we adapt these ideas to expand to Natural History Museums, Art Museums, Historic Sites, and National Parks?
Museums are experts on their collections. They do not have to be experts on everyone that comes in their doors. Who can they involve in the process of creating and implementing these programs? How can they collaborate with organizations and community members throughout the process?