Creating Successful Museum Experiences for Children with Disabilities

By Rebecca Sutton
A silhouette of a child looking at jellyfish through aquarium glass

A child at an aquarium. Photo by flickr user Kaitlin Shiner

When Roger Ideishi was helping a Philadelphia aquarium develop programming for children with cognitive and sensory disorders, he surveyed parents to see whether or not they thought their child would engage with programming by touching a starfish. “Every single parent said their child would not touch the starfish,” said Ideishi, a professor at Temple University who specializes in helping organizations develop meaningful experiences for children with disabilities. “Guess what happened? Every child touched the starfish.”

It’s an example of the happy surprises that can occur when taking children with sensory or cognitive disorders to community institutions such as Blue Star Museums, which include several aquariums around the country. “Without these opportunities, parents wouldn't have known that their children had these other capacities or interests,” said Ideishi.

Ensuring these encounters are successful, however, requires legwork. For example, sensory processing disorder (SPD), which can coincide with other diagnoses such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can make certain sensory stimuli feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. Lights might be too bright, noises might be too loud, or the feel of certain fabrics might be intolerable. This can make unfamiliar environments a minefield of upsetting circumstances. Conversely, some children with SPD are drawn to sensory stimulation, and are unhappy or bored without it.

“A parent is crucial for preparing a child with sensory processing disorder to go to a community setting like a museum,” Ideishi said. “The parent can help to provide information to the child on what to expect, what the experience may entail from the visual and auditory landscape, to specific museum content, and to the social milieu in a museum.”

To begin these preparations, Ideishi encourages parents to contact the museum’s accessibility office or education department and ask about what types of services or programming are available. “Many museums have materials such as visual schedules, social narratives, and sensory guides, as well as early morning hour openings,” he said, the last of which are aimed at reducing potentially stressful stimuli as well as crowds. Museum materials are often available online, and might list areas where a child will encounter loud noises or bright lights, or alternatively, dim lighting and quiet spaces. Or they might offer a step-by-step guide about what children and their caregivers can expect, from how security guards might check their bags, to how they might need to wait in line to purchase tickets, to what experiences or objects they might encounter in specific rooms.

“Descriptions of these scenarios can help the child begin to think about what that experience is, whether the child will like or dislike the experience, or what types of self-regulated strategies the child might use during overwhelming times,” said Ideishi. “As the child reflects and thinks about these situations, the setting becomes less unfamiliar.”

Ideishi also recommends strategizing beforehand with a child’s therapists—whether speech, occupational, or otherwise—who can help parents develop a child-specific game plan, including possible triggers to avoid, or areas that might be particularly appealing. “Every child is different,” said Ideishi. Doing advance preparation “helps the child or parent to self-determine what the best wayfinding or route will be to experience the museum.”

But what happens if a museum doesn’t offer any programming or services at all? It just might be the perfect opportunity for parents to educate museum staff. “This is really becoming a huge national movement, so I think parents can be a little bit more demanding of museums to serve everybody,” said Ideishi. “Sometimes museums will say something like, ‘Oh, we don't really get those kinds of people here.’ Well part of the reason they don't come is because there isn't a welcoming, supportive environment. If parents are inquiring about how museums can serve their needs, I think most museums are really receptive to that.”

By increasing awareness, Ideishi is hopeful that all will eventually benefit. “The goal isn't necessarily to always create ‘special’ experiences or ‘sensory-friendly’ mornings,” he said. “The ultimate goal is for museums to support all people, at all times, based on their diverse needs.”

Read additional tips and advice about visiting museums with children with disabilities.