What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is the term used for a group of disorders of brain development. Previously diagnosed as several disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is characterized by verbal and non verbal interaction, repetitive behaviors, and difficulties with social interactions in varying degrees. The use of the term spectrum in Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity of the disorder.
For most people with ASD, symptoms will appear by ages 2 to 3. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 68 American children are on the spectrum.ASD is more prevalent in boys than girls; approximately 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with ASD. Currently, there are over 3 million individuals in the United States diagnosed with ASD.
Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Symptoms of ASD can be divided into a few simple categories: communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and associated medical conditions.
Communication Difficulties may include:
- Issues with non-verbal communication such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions, and body posture.
- Failure or difficulty creating and maintaining friendships with people the same age
- Lack of interest in sharing enjoyment with other people
- Lack of empathy
- A delay in or lack of learning to talk
- Difficulties starting a conversation
- Difficulty placing themselves in another person’s shoes
- Can be passive, aggressive, or disruptive
- Difficulty understanding directions or questions
Repetitive Behaviors may include:
- Hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, twirling, arranging and re-arranging objects, or repeating sounds and words
- Repetitive behavior can be self stimulating (ex. wiggling fingers in front of own eyes)
- Can take the form of intense interests or obsessions
- Need for consistency and routine
Associated Medical Conditions may include:
- Genetic disorders such as: Fragile X syndrome, Angelman syndrome, and other single-gene and chromosomal disorders.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) Disorders affect up to 85% of children with ASD ranging from chronic constipation, diarrhea, to inflammatory bowel disease.
- Seizure disorders
- Sleep dysfunction
- Sensory processing problems
What is it like to have ASD?
According to the National Autistic Society, a recent survey showed that approximately 28% of families with a child with ASD have been asked to leave a museum. With obstacles like sensitivity to light, sound, and touch– the museum can be an intimidating or unfriendly place for families with a child with ASD for the child with ASD themselves.
However, museums have the potential to be great sites for families with a child with ASD and for children with ASD because learning within a museum can be verbal or non-verbal, hands-on or hands-off, fast or slow, social or solitary, loud or quiet, directed or inquiry based. Learning and educational experiences can be formed to fit the needs of children with ASD.
Museum Programs Designed with ASD in Mind
- Exploring Our Way Autism Program at Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
- Dallas Museum of Art’s Autism Awareness Family Celebration
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Social Narratives and My Met Tour Visual Checklist designed for families with a child with ASD
What Can Museums Do?
Museums are meant to be for the public, but until museums recognize the needs of any and all visitors museums can be an unwelcoming place for many. The beauty of learning within museums is that educational experiences can be what visitors need them to be. My suggestions for museums are as follows:
- Host days specifically for audiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder- let people with ASD feel welcome and wanted in museum spaces!
- Provide resources to help audiences with ASD feel more comfortable in museum spaces such as: maps that highlight where sound and sight might be overwhelming to some, which areas are heavily trafficked, and where bathrooms, seating, places to eat, and areas with some privacy are so audiences with ASD are familiar with the space before arriving and can choose activities and spaces that meet their individual needs.
- Host programs designed for audiences with ASD. Design and host programs meant for children with ASD, for teens with ASD, and adults with ASD. Design and implement programs that also engage families that have a child with ASD.
- Engage in open dialogue and welcome feedback from individuals with ASD and families with a child with ASD. Always be open to suggestions on how to make exhibitions and spaces more accessible!
Resources on ASD for Museum Educators