Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Museum


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
  • Pica

Associated symptoms of ASD

What is it like to have ASD?


Video from The National Autistic Society

Museum Experiences

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

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:

  1. Host days specifically for audiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder- let people with ASD feel welcome and wanted in museum spaces!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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


5 thoughts on “Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Museum

  1. tkhorst

    Thank you so much for teaching us about this audience. The video and chart you shared in this article were also extremely helpful in visualizing autism. Most of my experience with this audience took place at my fall field placement this past semester. Formal education addresses this audience by formatting individualized education plans (IEPs) for students with autism and/or learning disabilities. What I really appreciate is that schools try to integrate these students into the classroom with their peers as much as possible rather than segregating them. I know that some museums have designated special days for this audience. While I do think it is important for this audience to have a safe space, perhaps more staff training and universal design would help museums better integrate this audience into their spaces.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. erinmkohler

    I appreciate that you chose to cover this topic. My teaching career offered me the opportunity to work with this very special audience every day, and for that I am grateful. Understanding the way people with autism experience the world is critical to crafting a comfortable environment and experience for them in museums and the classroom. I’m not sure if you saw the news about Target recently, so I’ll share the link here. Target plans to offer hours for families to shop with limited stimuli.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. caitlinefblake Post author

      Yes! I saw this 🙂 I think it’s a great idea. The site the article you posted references ( is also a great resource for seeing what’s going on in the world and what people are experiencing re: ASD and other disabilities, diseases, and mental illnesses– I love seeing the site getting recognition!


  3. alw888

    Your presentation on Autism Spectrum Disorders and museum education was very informative. Watching the video that shows a representation of what it is like to have Autism was an effective means to convey the discomfort museum visitors may feel. Detailed illustrations and bullet point explianations give your blog post an organized appearance as well as readability. Use of concrete examples regarding how museums can accommodate persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders facilitates understanding for the reader, and makes it apparent that with relative easy museums can create spaces as well as events where people of all ages with Autism can feel welcome.

    I wonder if programing aimed for persons with Autism could also reach out to or be marketed for several groups? For instance, calm environments that are easily accessible, few stimuli at once, and non-intimidating discussions and/or activities would be appropriate for some persons with anxiety and depression disorders, young children and families, and given the setup persons with mobility limitations.


  4. museumpeople

    Great job Caitlin–very useful and interesting information. You presented it in an easy to follow format and boiled down the information in a way most museum educators could absorb and apply it. I especially liked the video–I had no idea things could be so overwhelming for people with autism spectrum disorder.

    Liked by 1 person


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