Visiting Museums with Children with Special Needs

By Rebecca Gross
Reflective chrome shapes

An exhibit at the de Young Museum. Photo by flickr user Refracted Moments©

It’s not unusual for a child to feel wary of museums, which often come with jostling crowds, new visual or multimedia experiences, and expectations of best behavior—no touching, no running, and inside voices only. For a child with special needs however, this can all compound into a positively overwhelming or even frightening experience. But is that a reason to avoid museums altogether? Absolutely not. Rather, it’s simply a matter of being prepared. We asked accessibility specialists and educators at Blue Star Museums around the country to provide advice for parents of children with special needs on how to plan the best museum visit possible for their family. Here’s what they had to say:

"In consideration of those with Sensory Processing Disorders, pre-visit preparations can be invaluable strategies for navigating unknown environments. First-time visitors are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the layout of the museum in advance of exploring; parents of children with SPD may choose to tour prior to a whole-family experience in an effort to identify spaces that offer respite or activity from over- and under- response to sensory stimuli. Though physical and environmental constraints may exist, distinguishing anxiety-producing galleries from calming ones may be the strategy that ensures a positive experience, and ultimately, repeat visits. Additionally, families should feel empowered to advocate for the needs of their child by using proven resources such as Social Stories; visual schedules; fidgets; headphones; weighted blankets and vests." -Ashley Hosler, Senior Education Coordinator, The Walters Art Museum

“Come to the Museum without assumptions about what your child can or cannot do. Art museums are places of wonder where imagination can run wild. Ask your child what they see in works of art and create a story together. If they have a visual impairment, don’t forget to describe the works of art and ask them what they are picturing. To help you and your child prepare for a museum visit, find the online resources many museums provide, such as social narratives, family guides and maps. When you arrive, inquire about quiet spaces in the museum where everyone can take a break. And make sure to locate the cafeteria to keep fueling active minds!” -Marie Clapot, Assistant Museum Educator for Access and Community Programs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art  ‎

"I would suggest any parent, whether they have a special needs child or not, to research the museum you are visiting before you arrive, plan your visit before you arrive. I would also suggest that you call the museum’s education office to ask questions about what to expect when visiting their museum and what sorts of tips they may have for you so that you can have a great experience. Museum educators really enjoy talking to visitors about how to make their visit a fun and enjoyable experience, we are here to serve the visitor, so engage with us. I would also suggest not trying to fit seeing the entire museum into one trip. Select a theme for your visit—maybe animalsand just look for those items during your visit. Get the kids involved, they will love the experience if they get to help guide it." -Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum

“As you are planning your museum visit, be sure to check the museum’s website to look for information on accessibility. Many museums offer programming that caters to specific needs like sensory-friendly events or visual description tours. Many museums are quieter in the late afternoon, after school tours have ended—this is an ideal to visit with a child that may need quiet spaces for relaxing and enjoying viewing works of art. If you are unsure of off-peak hours, call the museum to ask for a recommendation of when the galleries are less noisy. During your museum visit, bring along a favorite toy, book, or even music to listen to with headphones; having something familiar with them can help a child to feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar place.” -Amanda Blake, Head of Family, Access, and School Experiences, Dallas Museum of Art

"Planning and preparing for your visit in advance can make your trip to the museum more manageable, but also more enjoyable! Check online resources and see if the museum has prepared social narratives or visiting tips for families, but also familiarize yourself with the space. Where is the entrance? Where do I purchase admission? Where are the restrooms? Which galleries are quieter and less crowded? Which areas of the museum are always crowded? If you can’t find this information online, contact the museum. I am currently developing tip sheets and social narratives because so many families have reached out to me!" -Rebecca Bradley, Manager of Access Programs, de Young Museum

"Before visiting the museum, call the education department or check the accessibility page of its website to see what's available! Many museums have programs and materials developed specifically for a variety of audiences with special needs. Museum staff is always willing to answer your questions and to provide information and materials to ensure that your family has a great visit." -Kristi McMillan, Assistant Curator of Education for Visitor Engagement, Birmingham Museum of Art

"Museums are ideal environments for interactive open-access learning. Know that museums are welcoming spaces, with staff who are eager and open to providing accommodations. Please inform us, preferably in advance, and we will do due diligence in ensuring the best possible museum visit for all. Many museum educators and visitor service representatives are skilled at creatively adapting and enriching content, using cutting edge technology and best practices in museum accessibility. Just ask!" -Cecile Shellman, Diversity Catalyst, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh

"We welcome children of all abilities, and the Museum of Fine Art, Boston's goal is for everyone to have choices in how they experience the museum. Recognizing that people’s needs and preferences vary quite a bit, our suggestion is that if you have a concern, or want more information…. ask! Ask ahead by calling the manager of accessibility, or ask at the visitor desk. (Museums that don’t have someone in charge of accessibility probably have someone in education or visitor services who can answer those questions.) We will gladly answer questions about specific accommodations and resources (like tactile materials for children), information designed to reassure and inform (where are the quiet spaces in the museum?), about specific programs, and everything else!" -Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"The Philadelphia Museum of Art is accessible and anyone can come at any time and have a great experience. However, if you really want an experience that is catered specifically to your or your child’s needs, feel free to call the office of accessible programs! We’ll work with you to provide a tour that is just for you and your child and we will not charge any extra to do it. Letting us know of your arrival in advance can help smooth the way for you even if you decide to self-guide. We can offer advice on 'quieter' times to visit, where our accessible parking and bathrooms are located, and even 'go-to' places for children and adults who might need a little less sensory stimulation." -Marissa Clark, Accessible Programs Coordinator, Philadelphia Museum of Art