Making Science Accessible

September 3, 2013

Insect in Hand

This summer, the Academy of Natural Sciences’ doors opened early for 180 specially invited guests. These guests were attending the museum’s first Access to Science event, created to provide an engaging experience for visitors on the autism spectrum and their families.

These visitors arrived equipped with visual maps and museum schedules. The Academy designed these items to help guests on the spectrum have an educational and stress-free morning to gaze at dinosaur skeletons, animals, and butterflies.

This Access to Science event was part of an ongoing project called CATAAlysis (Changing Attitudes Towards Autism Access). The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded a grant to the Academy of Natural Sciences, the New Jersey Academy of Aquatic Sciences, and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia to undertake CATAAlysis. The goal of this project is to improve access to museums, workshops, and volunteer opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum.

If you or a loved one has autism, you know that public settings can be more challenging than private ones. Social anxiety, a need for familiar routines, and high sensitivity to noises, lights, and smells can make a visit to a museum uncomfortable or difficult. In a place like the Academy, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and noises; bright and dark rooms; live animals and insects; and strangers walking around, visitors on the autism spectrum may feel stressed and overwhelmed.

However, informal science learning centers don’t need to be off limits—in fact, with careful planning by families and museum staff, museums can provide great experiences for visitors on the spectrum. For individuals who are especially talented at remembering facts and who also enjoy reading books and watching movies about science, museums provide great opportunities for hands-on learning, bringing science to life.

Working with Roger I. Ideishi, JD, OT/L, FAOTA, the Academy education staff developed museum stories—packets that explain exactly what guests will experience during their visit—to help families overcome challenges with unfamiliar situations. For example, a museum story for Dinosaur Hall includes a picture of T. rex, and the caption “I will see big skeletons of dinosaurs.”

According to Academy Director of Education and Lifelong Learning Timshel Purdum, these museum guides allow families to decide which exhibits they would like to visit or avoid.  They can tailor the museum tour to each child’s specific needs. This is helpful, Purdum explains, because no two people on the spectrum are alike, and “what works for one person might not work for another.”

In addition to these Access events, Academy staff plans to start a program for teens on the spectrum. This fall, eight teenagers will learn about the work of paleontologists, from planning expeditions to preparing fossils, through eight interactive sessions. “The goal,” says Purdum “is to leverage interest in science education while also developing social skills.” This program is a unique way to use science education to guide teens’ development of social skills, which they can apply in school, volunteer service, and the workforce.

In the coming months and years, the Academy educational staff is looking into providing Academy-wide staff training for working with visitors on the autism spectrum so we can continue to increase the Academy’s accessibility. Staff members also hope to make museum stories available as phone and tablet apps and share these successful tools with other museums.

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