How to Offer More Inclusive Museum Experiences Through Neurodiversity Awareness

Joslyn McIntyre

December 8, 2022

You think of your museum as a calmly vibrant space. But for a child with autism, it’s actually an overwhelming experience: the high ceilings, the bright lights, the crowds of strangers. For this kid, a valuable opportunity to experience and learn something new is thwarted by the fact that the environment is different, and the abundance of sensory stimuli makes it somewhat uncomfortable.

Accessibility and inclusivity are top of mind for a lot of museums and attractions today, but this subject goes way beyond wheelchair ramps and braille signage. Most museum marketing campaigns and visitor experiences are designed with neurotypical people in mind, partly because those designing them don’t know how to accommodate people who process information differently than the rest. 

To be a truly inclusive museum means understanding what neurodiverse people need. It’s thought that about 15% of the population is neurodiverse, and with a world population that just surpassed 8 billion, that’s way over a billion people. If your museum does not proactively welcome more than just neurotypical people, you’re neglecting to accommodate a lot of potential visitors.

What is neurodiversity?

Every person’s brain is unique, but the majority of people are considered neurotypical – meaning that their brain performs in expected ways when it comes to things like reading, speaking, and social interaction. A person might be shy or outgoing, with all kinds of personality traits and learning styles of their own, but when it comes down to it, their brain is somewhat predictable.

Neurodiverse people stray from this model. This includes people on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, and people who have dyslexia and other so-called “learning disabilities.” While they may learn differently, express themselves differently, and even read and speak differently (or not at all), neurodiverse people constitute an audience you don’t want to ignore.

The Autism Awareness Centre in the UK published a 45-page manifesto of sorts – Guide for Welcoming Museum Visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder – which underlines the importance of exposure to art and culture for autistic people specifically, and we can assume there’s some truth to this point of view for all types of neurodiverse people. As someone in a leadership role, you have an opportunity to make a difference and create a more inclusive museum.

8 ways to become a more inclusive museum

Of course, when it comes to neurodiversity awareness, there can be a lot of nuances. But you don’t have to be a cognitive scientist or neurosurgeon to craft a more inclusive experience at your museum that welcomes all kinds of minds. 

However, it can be harder to figure out how to accommodate neurodiverse people, partly because there are few laws and regulations around this subject, and also because neurodiverse people can be so, well, diverse. They can also be hard to pick out of a crowd – their differences are somewhat “invisible,” and the ways to accommodate them are not obvious. 

Here are eight ways your museum might consider changing  to welcome more diverse people and increase the scope of your inclusion efforts. 

1. Build designated quiet areas into your space

Big, open spaces can be stressful for certain neurodiverse people, which makes the majestic quality of a lot of museums intimidating to this audience. One way to compensate is to design smaller, quieter, less sensorily busy spaces within your museum – rooms free of loud music, flashing lights, and overwhelming visuals. Smaller, more intimate galleries with carefully selected artworks and exhibits can offer neurodiverse people safe spaces in which to enjoy what your museum has to offer. 

One exhibit co-organized recently by the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, included built-in “sensory de-escalation spaces.” A participant with a sensory processing disorder could choose to sit in a rocking chair with a weighted lap pad and noise-canceling headphones in order to temporarily “unplug” from the experience.

Neurodiversity Awareness can be achieved through  building quiet areas into your spacer
Steven and William Ladd, Scroll Space. Photo by John Smith

It’s these sorts of thoughtful accommodations that make your museum inviting to a diverse range of people. 

2. Carve out specific hours for neurodiverse people

Perhaps creating defined spaces for sensory-sensitive people is not possible given the physical constraints of your venue. Some museums solve this problem by creating special events or carving out hours to accommodate the neurodiverse. 

The Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, offer a sensory-friendly Morning at the Museum program for families of children, teenagers, and young adults with disabilities who are neurodiverse, autistic, or have other sensory processing disorders or cognitive disabilities. These pre-scheduled events are available by sign-up, and prior to the event, the museums send participation families a packet including social narratives, sensory maps, visual schedules, and tip sheets.

Neurodiversity Awareness can be achieved by opening at quieter times
Smithsonian National Postal Museum in the morning. Photo from Shutterstock by Ritu Manoj Jethani

By extending your opening hours, you can offer times when neurodiverse people can enjoy your museum without a crowd, and with the lights dimmed and the noise factor managed.

3. Offer special, inclusive events

At Rijksmuseum, Saturday nights are for Sensory-Friendly Evenings, and the museum invites those who “tend to be easily overwhelmed or overstimulated because you have autism, an acquired brain injury, burn-out, or are ill.” The lights in the Atrium are dimmed, visitors are limited, and trained hosts facilitate a reception. During these events, the museum offers a free audio tour and has special, sensory-friendly versions of some of its exhibits. 

The Natural History Museum in London offers a regular free event for children with neurodiverse conditions:

The Natural History Museum in London offers a regular free event for children with neurodiverse conditions: Dawnosaurs. Autism-aware facilitators lead tours through the museum’s galleries and host activities. 

These are just two examples of museums that have found ways to create inclusive events and curricula for the neurodiverse. 

4. Welcome the neurodiverse in unique ways

Because museums are often new experiences for neurodiverse visitors, those first moments can really matter. 

At the entrance to the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands is a touchable scale model of the museum itself. For blind and partially sighted visitors, this scale model can help them literally feel their way around the building before they enter, orienting them to the space. This scale model can also help neurodiverse visitors know what to expect when they enter the museum. Mirjam Eikelenboom, Educator at the Van Gogh Museum, says, “The touchable scale model is specifically designed for visitors with various visual impairments, but will also assist many of our other visitors during their visit.”

the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands is a touchable scale model of the museum itself
Photo from Van Gogh Museum

Think about the experience of entering your own museum. How could it be designed for a more inclusive introduction?

5. Make inclusivity a part of your website

Often, the first resource people turn to when deciding whether to attend your museum with neurodiverse family members or friends will be your website. The more information you can offer about your accessibility efforts, the better.

Beyond the scale model of the museum, the Van Gogh makes an effort to reach visitors with sensory sensitivity throughout their visit, and has a web page dedicated to this audience. The site helps prepare these visitors by offering a preview of the floor plan, an accessibility map, information about how and where to take a break if needed, and the option of acquiring a “Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard” for use while in the museum.

the Van Gogh makes an effort to reach visitors with sensory sensitivity throughout their visit
Photo from Van Gogh museum

Beyond the scale model of the museum, the Van Gogh makes an effort to reach visitors with sensory sensitivity throughout their visit, and has a web page dedicated to this audience. The site helps prepare these visitors by offering a preview of the floor plan, an accessibility map, information about how and where to take a break if needed, and the option of acquiring a “Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard” for use while in the museum.

Your website is one of the best places to begin to build out neurodiversity awareness efforts. For inspiration and ideas, check out the Neurodiverse Museum website.

6. Team up with schools and experts

Partnering with organizations that hold expertise in certain areas of accessibility is a fantastic way to improve upon your museum’s sophistication in this area. 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts partners with Les Petits Rois, a foundation that supports children living with intellectual disabilities or autism and attending specialized schools. The museum also partners with Autisme sans limites (ASL), an organization that fosters the personal fulfillment and social inclusion of autistic adults, to offer museum-based art therapy sessions.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts partners with Les Petits Rois, a foundation that supports children living with intellectual disabilities or autism and helps to raise Neurodiversity awareness
Some photos from Les Petits Rois' Instagram

Palais des Beaux Arts in France has for a long time partnered with a corporate foundation and a leading child psychiatrist in an effort to welcome people with autism for tours and dedicated workshops. This effort has led to a documentary film, a fresco, and ongoing programming that has become more and more successful over the years. 

Most museums don’t have neurodiversity or accessibility experts on staff, so partnerships can be profoundly important to meeting inclusivity goals and offering innovative types of programming.

7. Provide your staff with helpful tools and training

While you may not have experts on staff, you can increase the expertise of the staff you do have with a little bit of thoughtful training and by arming them with the right tools. 

For instance, staff at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo are trained to recognize when a neurodiverse visitor is having a moment of sensory overload and offer a set of noise-canceling headphones that can help quiet the din. Other tools might include “sensory kits” which contain sunglasses to block strobe lighting along with headphones.

The Dallas Museum of Art’s Sensory Scouts program enlists museum staff to host a monthly workshop for teens with autism. Museum staff are trained to conduct an initial orientation on the day of the workshop that explains what will happen that day with a clear, picture-heavy presentation. Staff are also trained to act as facilitators throughout the workshop, encouraging dialog and leading hands-on art activities. 

If you’re not sure where to start, look for a nearby organization that offers this sort of staff training and advice. The Champion Autism Network in Florida, for example, is a nonprofit offering training and certification for travel destinations that want to be inclusive. Bringing in a consultant such as this can prove to be a valuable step in becoming a more inclusive museum.

Several events are updated on The Campion Autism Network's Instagram

8. Hire neurodiverse people

Finally, consider hiring more neurodiverse people to your staff.

Casa Batlló in Barcelona lays claim to being the first cultural institution of its kind to have a team of neurodiverse people on staff. CEO Gary Gautier says, “Our hidden gem is our staff team...Our collaboration with a company called Specialisterne has made it possible to demystify and give visibility to neurodiversity, and to be a source of employment for people with difficulties in accessing the labour market.”

Having neurodiverse people on staff puts your museum at an obvious advantage when it comes to creating more inclusive experiences. But if you’re going to hire neurodiverse people, you have to follow that up by creating a work environment that’s accommodating to these people and their range of needs.

Colorful walls in Mindful Chefs office

For instance, people with ADHD sometimes have a hard time concentrating for long stretches, so offering them places to exercise during the workday can be a thoughtful way to accommodate their work styles. On the other hand, people with autism sometimes need a quiet place to decompress: a staff meditation or yoga room, for instance. 

Neurodiversity awareness for a more inclusive audience

Why should your museum care about neurodiversity awareness? 

As MuseumNext said, “We should remember that many of the traits of neurodivergence include creativity, imagination, innovation, artistic flair, and all that the arts and culture sector holds dear. Giving neurodiverse audiences the access they need to nurture these qualities and skills is fundamental within the arts, heritage, and culture sectors.”

Accommodating a wider range of thinkers into your museum isn’t just a good business practice. It’s a good human practice. By adopting any or all of these eight strategies, your museum can begin to become a place where all are truly welcome. Every museum can benefit from removing barriers for neurodivergent individuals and offering an inclusive experience for all.


If you're looking for more ways to make your venue more inclusive to every type of visitor, please read Tips to Make Your Venue More Inclusive for LGBTQ+ Tourism next.  

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