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Carlos Museum, Emory Autism Center work together to make museum visits more inclusive

A child participates in a workshop on sand mandalas at the Carlos Museum. Experts from the Emory Autism Center are helping staff and docents at the museum learn strategies to make visits more welcoming for people with autism spectrum disorder.

Making sure that the 16,000 young people who visit Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum annually for field trips, camps and special programs maximize their museum experience is a top priority for the museum’s Office of Educational Programs.

Experienced at customizing programs to suit the interests and needs of visitors, Alyson Vuley, manager of educational programs, spotted an opportunity for growth when she met Kelsey Bohlke, a counselor at the Emory Autism Center (EAC).

Bohlke, who leads the center’s myLIFE social engagement group, had contacted Vuley about bringing a group of her clients to the museum. As Vuley learned more about the work of the EAC, she knew that the museum and its visitors could benefit from its expertise.

Her request for Bohlke’s assistance resulted in a December training for a group of museum staff, docents and teaching artists. Since then, the Carlos Museum and the Emory Autism Center have built an ongoing relationship that points to the impact Emory units have when they pool their expertise to better serve the wider community.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) spans a wide range of individuals with varying skills and abilities. As ASD is characterized by difficulties with communication and social skills, individuals will sometimes have difficulty applying typical social conventions to situations they encounter, such as using a quiet voice in a museum. This needn’t limit access to museums and other cultural institutions.

The EAC recommends that children and adults with autism have the opportunity to be included in the community just like everyone else, and experiencing everyday activities, like the visit to the Carlos Museum that Bohlke arranged for her clients, with friends and family members are beneficial. That tip sounded familiar to Vuley, who has developed a relationship with a family that brings their five-year-old son with ASD to the Carlos Museum’s many children’s programs.

“The family makes an effort to go out every weekend,” Vuley notes, “and his mom has told me how much his behavior has improved since undertaking these outings.” 

At the Carlos Museum training, Bohlke and Rachel Seaman, a post-doctoral fellow at the EAC, provided the museum team with strategies they could use to make the visitor experience more inclusive.

Accommodating the needs of those with ASD, according to Seaman, looks a lot like good teaching: breaking things down into steps, using visual or tactile examples to explain concepts, avoiding sarcasm and idioms, reviewing expectations before an activity begins, and using language clearly.

“Rather than saying ‘don’t run’ or ‘no touching,’” Seaman explained, “tell them to walk and keep their hands in their pockets. If you ask students to stay with the group, explain how closely everyone should stay. Provide examples of how you’d like students to behave; instead of calling attention to negative behavior, identify an example of positive behavior that group members should model.” 

Additionally, Bohlke and Seaman suggested museum staff create a social story, that is, a story used to help visitors prepare for what they will encounter. Social stories model appropriate social interaction by describing situations with relevant social cues, others’ perspectives and a suggested response. A social story about a field trip to the museum, for example, may begin by describing how students will form a line, enter a gallery as a group and listen quietly with their hands in their pockets while a docent speaks to them about a piece of art.

The partnership between the Carlos Museum and the Emory Autism Center will continue this semester as the museum’s Office of Educational Programs works to implement the EAC’s recommendations. Vuley and a student intern will create a social story that teachers and parents can use to prepare for a museum visit, and last week, all of the museum’s docents attended an EAC training.

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