Manchester Museum: The Autism Friendly Museum

Manchester Museum: The Autism Friendly Museum

The Autism Friendly Museum project at Manchester Museum aims to increase health and wellbeing for family visitors with children with Autism, by providing a safe and supported environment to visit and explore; with engaging opportunities for all the family to share quality time together.

Parents particularly have relished the opportunity to share experiences and gain support from each other. They have commented on the benefits of being able to access these activities as a whole family, and the lack of similar opportunities.
In partnership with the Greater Manchester Autism Consortium, National Autistic Society, (GMAC and NAS) and Manchester Art Gallery, we are breaking down barriers to visiting cultural venues and having a positive impact on families and staff.  The project is funded by core Museum budget and Arts Council England.

Aims and Objectives
Key aims are to;
- break down barriers for families with children with autism to accessing cultural venues
- support families with children with autism to feel confident when accessing cultural venues
- broaden autism awareness for staff and visitors
- work in closer partnership with GMAC and NAS
- offer an opportunity to access the Museum at quieter times
- provide a quality experience for all the family
- share findings with other cultural venues nationally and internationally to promote similar projects

Timescale and delivery dates
Date Activity
Summer 2014 Consultation survey
Nov 2014 – to present 3 Autism Awareness training sessions
Nov 2014- March 2015 Monthly Early Openings piloted
April 2015 and to date Early Openings part of Museum’s core family programme
March 2015 Family Programme Coordinator spoke at Museum’s Development North West Annual Conference
March 2016 GEM (Group for Education in Museums) and Curious Minds –  Autism Friendly Cultural Venues sharing day, sharing steps to developing autism friendly cultural venues supported by NAS and case studies from cultural venues

Context, Location and Setting
Our partners GMAC and NAS conducted a local survey consulting with families to explore barriers they felt or may had experienced that prevented them from accessing cultural venues.
Key findings were that families wanted;
- increased understanding from staff and visitors
- opportunity to access cultural venues at quieter times
- reassurance of the presence of a quiet room which parents and children could access whilst visiting if needed
In addition, we had anecdotal evidence that families with children with Autism were deliberately seeking out quieter times to visit the Museum.  

In response to the survey we have delivered training and launched regular autism friendly early openings on the second Saturday of every month for families with children with autism aged 5-16 and their siblings. Events run from 9.15-10.30am deliberately straddling the Museum’s public opening time of 10am, aiming to support our participants in building confidence to access other elements of the core museum family programme of activities. Our partners Manchester Art Gallery run a similar session on the third Saturday of every month.

Description of the arts activity

We offer a quieter time to access the Museum galleries, offering a range of family activities for participants to dip into and out of as they wish. Activities support different needs and learning styles, such as sensory, visual, and kinaesthetic. They include object handling and creative arts (which have included working with clay, textiles and print) working with creative practitioners.

Details of the project participants

We work in partnership with the NAS to develop and promote our early openings.  We have built up a mailing list of participants. We cross promote similar activities provided by other cultural venues in Manchester. Eg. Manchester Art Gallery, HOME and through Manchester Family Arts Network.

Activities are drop in and we have experienced many repeat visitors and ‘new’ visitors.  We have also had several visitors whose children have recently been diagnosed as having autism.

Project management

Family Programme Coordinator project manages the early openings and is supported by key Museum staff and volunteers.
We ensure quality by offering autism awareness training for the Museum’s broader team as well as those working on our autism friendly early openings.  

The activities are free of charge to all participants and permissions are requested for any film or photography taken

Evaluation methods and findings

Internal Evaluation Methods
Qualitative Evaluation
- Visitor comment book
- Observational evaluation
- Informal conversations with participants
- On going support from critical friends at local NAS and Manchester Art Gallery to whom we can raise any queries, ask questions about any concerns and discuss any challenges we may experience and how to address them

- Sign-in sheet – collecting number of participants attending, documenting busiest and quieter months, where visitors have heard about the sessions, where they are coming from and if they are ‘new’ visitors

Summary Findings
‘A great opportunity to get out as a family in an environment where people are understanding of my son’s Autism.  Fantastic staff, really welcoming and helpful!’
Visitors have told us how much they appreciate being able to have quality time with the whole family.
‘We’ve been counting the days to come!  We had our first visit to the Museum at the November early opening and we’ve been to every one since.’
This visitor visited the Museum with her family for the first time in November 2014.  For several families it has been their first visit and they have begun to access the Museum outside of the early opening events.

Our visitors have appreciated engaging with artists, access to a quieter time and the understanding of Museum staff, volunteers and practitioners.

One outcome for Museum staff is an increase in confidence and their ability to support visitors with communication needs.
‘I feel better equipped to talk and communicate with people with Autism now, and particularly their families. I feel more comfortable now and realise that everyone is different anyway.’

Since launching the initiative by Jan 2016 we have held 20 early openings, and had a total of over 400 participants.

Ways forward
We aim to identify a permanent quiet space in the Museum. We will also continue our work with the NAS to consult with families to develop further activities and resources. An additional outcome has been the benefit for parents to share their experiences with and support each other, and we will strive to support this further. We aim to share best practice with colleagues within the sector, and within the Manchester Museums Partnership.
The project will inform our activity plan for our Heritage Lottery Funded courtyard project which will see an expansion to the venue and programmes.

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England