Where Do We Go from Here?: Aspirations and Outcomes in Autism in the Museum

 

Idealists often hope for more change than they get. Lisa Jo Rudy is a museum professional whose son is on the autism spectrum. She learned a lot about autism as a result, and focused on the strengths autistic people have. [1] These strengths make a natural fit for interacting with a museum, and Rudy decided to combine her personal and professional passions. The result was Autism in the Museum, a website dedicated to helping museums engage with people who have autism and similar conditions. Rudy had some big goals with the website. Beyond networking and idea exchange, she imagined that the site could eventually lead to online training, national or international online conferences, a podcast, and a wiki concerning museum professionals and adults with autism. [2]

Autism in the Museum does show many examples of museums that have reached out to autistic people. These include programs like Exploring Our Way at the New Hampshire Children’s Museum and events like the annual Autism Awareness Day at the Please Touch Museum. There is even a page where guests can post information about museums that are effectively incorporating people with autism. The website also does a good job explaining what autism is and how it affects people.

I had the opportunity to email Rudy about the response her website has received, and it was clear that Autism in the Museum did not cause as much change as she hoped it would:

I started up the website because I’d tried to get interest and support from museums to do it as a collaborative project, and while I did get interest I wasn’t successful in inspiring financial support or involvement from organizations. I created the site thinking it would be a good way to share information, and I have had a few queries…So… I think the site is useful to some, but it isn’t having any great impact one way or another. And without an organization behind it to organize conferences, publish papers, or do other work, it’s kind of a standalone “thing” that doesn’t really grow or change a great deal. [3]

Rudy gave several reasons why the website did not go as she intended. People with autism are as diverse as any other population, so making a program that will satisfy all of them is as hard as making a program that will satisfy everyone in any other population. Parents of autistic children prefer to attend special events rather than regular ones because they’re worried about how others will react to their children, and how their children will behave at the museum. Funding is more readily available for special events than for changing regular functions. Museums tend to prioritize routine operations over accessibility. Anything beyond ADA mandates is seen as generosity rather than fairness. [4]

What’s to be made of this? Autism in the Museum is an excellent resource on autism, museums, and outreach to people with autism. Any museum professional who hopes to engage people on the autism spectrum will be grateful for this website. Yet it was not quite what Rudy hoped it would be. She had big goals for the website, and the response given by other museum professionals has not quite allowed it to live up to those goals. It may be that museums are not ready to make the effort to fully include people on the autism spectrum. It may also be that such a degree of inclusion appears unfeasible because of fundamental issues in how museums function. Either way, Autism in the Museum is quite possibly the first attempt anyone has made to get museums to cooperate on engaging autistic people. As a pioneering endeavor, it is bound to run into unexpected difficulties. Hopefully, museum professionals will be inspired to surmount these difficulties.

 

[1] Rudy, Lisa Jo. “Home.” Autism in the Museum. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.autisminthemuseum.org/

[2] Rudy, Lisa Jo. “About This Site.” Autism in the Museum. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.autisminthemuseum.org/p/autism-in-museum-101.html

[3] Rudy, Lisa Jo. “Re: Questions about Autism in Museums Website.” Personal e-mail message. April 23, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

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