From the Field

Art Museum Autism Programs

April 16, 2014

April is National Autism Awareness Month! Many AAMD museums offer special programs for children with autism and their families. 

  • The Walters Art Museum’s Sensory Morning program is designed for families of children with Sensory Processing Disorders, and encourages exploration, play, and discovery. (Many children and adults with autism experience sensory processing challenges.) Through developmentally appropriate opportunities for hands-on learning in the galleries and art studios, children and adults of all levels and abilities are welcome to learn in the museum. Each Sensory Morning program centers on a theme that relates to the Walters collection or a special exhibition and include tours and hands-on activities. Museum Educators, Occupational and Physical Therapists, and Security Officers work to create an environment that is welcoming, engaging, and free of judgment for all. For more information on Sensory Mornings visit The Walters Art Museum website.
  • The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art's ArtAccess program provides art education for children on the autism spectrum (as well as children with other disabilities). The museum created a video demonstrating how JSMA educators tailor their program to engage autistic children and ensure they are comfortable in the museum. The video also includes testimonials from parents of autistic children. "Art has enabled Aiden to be more well-rounded in his life," says one mother. ArtAccess is sponsored by the Kennedy Center's VSA program.
  • The Butler Institute of American Art is highlighting Autism Awareness Month with the exhibition Seth Chwast: Autistic Artistic Mind. Chwast, of Cleveland Heights, OH, began taking art classes at The Cleveland Museum of Art in 2003 and immediately displayed an affinity and talent for painting. Since then, Chwast has traveled widely to continue his art education and to exhibit his abstract work. “Art has given Seth a voice, a passion, a pathway to friendship and an ever-expanding world,” says Chwast's mother. Seth Chwast: Autistic Artistic Mind  is a collaboration with the Mahoning Valley office of the Autism Society of America and is on view through May 11, 2014. More information on Chwast and the exhibition is available in the Youngstown Vindicator.
  • The Yale Center for British Art has developed a program to help introduce children on the autism spectrum to the art museum. Exploring Artism is open to children on the autism spectrum age 5-12; its goals are to foster inclusiveness for these children and their families and to promote art appreciation and visual literacy. Another goal is to help the children learn museum-appropriate behavior - a challenge for many kids in this age range that is intensified for those on the spectrum. Parents say that the special training YCBA docents and guards receive makes a big difference in helping their families feel comfortable in the museum. "The staff is really respectful. They made us feel a sense of belonging and acceptance," one parent said. "Sometimes you go to a place and people say 'what is going on with your kid?' They don't do that...the biggest thing is that my son keeps asking when we're going back." More on this program is available at the Yale Center for British Art website. 
  • The Clyfford Still Museum, VSA Colorado and the Colorado Photographic Arts Center have partnered on a program for teens with autism called Art, Architecture, and Autism. The program explores the art of Clyfford Still and the architecture of the museum itself and culminated in an exhibition of photography, prints and drawings at VSA Colorado's ArtAccess Gallery. VSA Colorado Executive Director Damon McLeese describes the genesis of thie program on the Clyfford Still Museum's website; you can view images from the program on VSA Colorado's Facebook page
  • Educators at The Andy Warhol Museum developed a program in partnership with nationally acclaimed educator Lynda Abraham-Braff and a local school in Pittsburgh to teach facial cues to students on the autism spectrum (who often struggle with facial recognition). The program aimed to help students interpret and mirror five emotions - happy, sad, angry, scared, and surprised - through Warhol's portraits and related activities. The full story is available in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

AAMD's monthly Museums and Communities News e-mail highlights stories like these every month. Learn the many ways AAMD museums serve their diverse communities, from programs for autistic children to veterans to Alzheimer’s patients to K-12 students.. Sign up here to receive Museums and Communities News once a month!



Image: Sensory Mornings, the Walters Art Museum’s program for children with Sensory Processing Disorders and their families. Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.