Museum Tours for Students who have Autism

Deb Hansen, Docent, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa (June 2018)

I recently facilitated a tour of the Des Moines Art Center for a group of fourth-grade students. At the first stop along the tour, I noticed that a girl was responding to my questions about the painting with comments that had nothing to do with the art. Her behavior was noticeably different from her peers, she interrupted other students with remarks that were off-topic, moved constantly, and bumped into her peers and the walls as we moved around the museum. My first thought was that unless I started making some adjustments, the tour would not be a success for her or for the other twelve children in the group. My job was not to guess why the girl was challenged by the museum setting. My job was not to ascribe a label or to make assumptions about her behavior. My job in this and every tour is to use every strategy in my docent repertoire to make sure that she and every student felt safe, respected, and valued, and had the chance to have a great experience in the museum.

Quickly recalling strategies for helping students with special needs, I asked the group to sit down in front of our next stop, positioning the girl beside me and praised her for following directions. To keep her and others engaged, I implemented a series of techniques, such as seeking quiet areas of the museum, paraphrasing students' comments, and having students walk with a partner between works.

I have been fortunate to also volunteer for Art Spectrums – a monthly program at the museum for students with autism and their families. The program includes a brief tour in the museum, discussion of a work of art in our collection for inspiration, and an opportunity to make their own artwork. Facilitating the Art Spectrums program has given me the opportunity to learn a variety of strategies for supporting students with autism in the museum. As a docent, I have found these strategies to be very helpful when conducting any school group tour.

Click here for suggestions on what to do before the tour starts and during the tour.

Click here for more resources on autism in the museum.

It is not unusual for docent-guided tours in our museum to include students who are on the autism spectrum. The Des Moines Art Center offers tours to several districts in central Iowa. These districts implement full inclusion policies and routinely send students with disabilities along with their peers on museum field trips. During the 2016-17 school year, our docent corps served more than 11,000 fourth-grade students, some of whom were on the autism spectrum. The Art Spectrums training session on how to support students with autism in the museum is offered to all docents, and several docents routinely serve as Art Spectrums volunteers.

As my tour ended and the students climbed onto their bus, I recalled a quote from the Autism in the Museum website.
"In a museum, learning can be verbal or non-verbal; hands-on or hands-off; fast or slow; social or solitary; loud or quiet; directed or inquiry-based. In a museum, lack of verbal skills need not stand in the way of discovery, learning, or passion. Lack of social skills need not stand in the way of achievement. And great strengths in a particular area can be the ticket for a lifelong connection to the community, to exploration, to involvement, and to inclusion. Perhaps more importantly, in a museum one's intensive knowledge of and passion about a particular topic, activity, or idea leads not to hostile glances or social scorn, but rather to ... respect."

It was a good feeling to know that I made every effort to make the museum accessible to every student. My tour may not have been perfect, but I could say, as the bus pulled away, "I facilitated the best experience for this tour, on this day."

StayStay with my adult.

handsHands and feet to self.

WalkandStayWalk and stay with the group.

SitSit on my seating mat.

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