Museum Educator CapABILITIES: Collaborate with Children with Intellectual DisABILITIES

“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.[1] 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. [2]

 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. [3]

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. [4] 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 [5]

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. [2][6]


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.[7]  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?









6 thoughts on “Museum Educator CapABILITIES: Collaborate with Children with Intellectual DisABILITIES

  1. valeriebundy Post author

    Also! Check out these Children’s Museums with programming for kids with disabilities:
    DuPage Children’s Museum
    Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
    Please Touch Museum
    Seattle Children’s Museum
    Boston Children’s Museum
    Chicago Children’s Museum
    Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
    Miami Children’s Museum
    The Golisano Children’s Museum
    Children’s Museum of Manhattan [6]


  2. Allison Van Gilst

    What interests me most when it comes to creating programs for children with special needs is that things which help them feel more comfortable can also make others feel more comfortable. Having universally accessible programs that see to the hierarchy of needs can lead to more programs designed at their basic level for children with special needs. While I do agree that it is important to have programs designed for children with special needs in mind, I think it is just as important to design programs that can be inclusive for anyone. We all want to be comfortable in a museum. The methods described in this post should be incorporated in every program so that children with special needs, or anyone for that matter, can feel comfortable in the program and feel that their needs have been considered and met.


    1. valeriebundy Post author

      Hey I think so too! This whole course(and blog) has been enlightening thinking about all of the different types of audiences and how they all sort of require the same things in museums. Universal design for the win!
      But I’ve bee thinking a lot about Julia’s point (in relation to the Smithsonian’s Morning at the Museum) that separate programming does have its benefits in helping these types of audience become acquainted, acclimated and comfortable to museums in general. It doesn’t have to be either or, but it should always be both!


  3. mmarines

    When I was working at the Chicago Children’s Museum they opened one hour early one weekend every month and invited children who either had a disability themselves or had a family member with a disability to come and enjoy the museum. The goal was to have a less crowded, quieter museum that was more comfortable for them. There was also a quiet room set up with sensory objects for kids who needed a break from the sensory overload that comes with a children’s museum. While I love all the points you made (and wish I had seen your presentation) I think there should also be an emphasis on training staff how to interact in certain situations. As you mentioned in your blog there are an immense amount of disabilities you cannot see from just looking at someone. If a child starts having a sudden outburst or breakdown, it isn’t necessarily because they’re badly behaved, they could have autism and be too overwhelmed by the situation. Having staff that is trained to not only recognize this, but respond correctly will create smoother resolutions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. megwilliams44

    The shift that we’re beginning to see in emphasizing the abilities of people who have historically been categorized as “disabled” is really exciting! Most people with disabilities consider it a positive part of their identity and don’t, in fact, wish to be any different. The onus is on us to shift our thinking in terms of how we perceive people with disabilities of any kind. As Val noted, it should go without saying that children and adults with intellectual disabilities are perfectly capable of learning. They just might learn in a different way than conventional education suggests that they should. Hurray for museums, though! We can really lead the way in embracing the abilities of those who have been marginalized for cognitive differences (side note: I really like this term ‘differences’ over ‘disabilities’. Thoughts?)

    The following are just a couple of examples of ways that kids with cognitive differences have strengths that many typical learners lack – they just aren’t able to flourish because of their environment:
    As this article shows, there are many positive aspects of autism – including terrific memory and an ability to live in the moment – that many people not on the autism spectrum strive for with great difficulty.
    Similarly, as this article demonstrates, people with dyslexia possess strengths which typical learners lack. There is growing evidence that people with dyslexia are simply more heavily right-brained than left-brained, which causes them to think nonverbally, or in pictures. This unfortunately makes it difficult to flourish when classroom education is centered around linear, left-brained thinking like reading text. Seems like museums, with plenty of 3-dimensional objects to offer, would be a great place for people with dyslexia to flourish. Yet another reason to provide plenty of interpretation beyond a dense, lengthy text panel.

    Museums can really lead the way not only by providing environments where kids and adults with learning differences can flourish, but also by doing more to shift the paradigm in broader society. Perhaps science or history museums can do exhibits on learning disabilities to help paint this group in a more positive light. Perhaps art museums can show exhibitions of artists with learning differences. As Maddie suggested, maybe museums can start by training educators to better recognize and emphasize these positive aspects in their interactions with people with learning differences.


  5. abbyk23

    This is such a great conversation, and it should be happening at all museums! I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said, but I want to emphasize what Allison said about universal design for different learning styles. It’s in any museum’s best interest to allow for many different styles of learning (no matter the cause for those different styles) to take place in their exhibits. This can come through in the exhibit design, which should attempt to appeal to as many learning needs as possible, but it can also come through programming. It would be very difficult to design for every single learning style in each and every exhibit, but programming (including those early morning hours for people with cognitive differences) can supplement the exhibits by providing the learning experiences that are perhaps missing in the exhibit under average circumstances.



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