Autistic Experiences in Museums
I’m Sammy, a volunteer with Leeds City Museum and a consultant for The Neurodiverse Museum, a project with Sporting Heritage.
Leeds City Museum and Sporting Heritage have asked me to work on a project called The Neurodiverse Museum. We want to work with autistic people to support museums to be more accessible spaces, have more representative histories, and to make it easier for autistic people to get jobs in museums.
I am an autistic person. I feel like I have2 to explain some of my feelings and behaviours to people. I particularly struggle with food and noise. I get asked a lot why I don’t eat certain foods. I have safe foods which I know I will be OK with, and I’d rather wait for my safe food even if it means not eating for a long time, than eat something which has a texture or taste that makes me feel repulsed.
Loud, unusual, or unexpected noises also make me feel overloaded. At school exams feel very loud for me, because they are so ‘silent’ that I can hear all the pencils scratching. Some supermarkets and shops turn off their music in ‘autistic hour’, but for me, that makes all the other noises (trollies, people, breathing, tills) too loud and overwhelming. I often listen to music in headphones because it calms me. Other autistic people may have a very different experience of music in headphones or music in supermarkets – we are not all the same!
Many autistic or neurodivergent people have heightened senses. What is quiet for you is very loud for me. Sometimes there is too much noise, or too many tastes or textures or lights, that our brains become overloaded because they can’t keep up. This might mean I melt down or shut down. It can even happen with a positive sensory overload. Sometimes I can calm myself by ‘stimming’; this means I stimulate myself or self sooth but doing something repetitive that I find calming. For me it might be covering my ears and shaking my head slowly.
I’ve been a volunteer at Leeds City Museum for 18 months. Before Covid I went in every week to help the Preservative Party (volunteers age 14-24) with projects. I like the museum. It is great. I find it calming. It is quite big so I can choose where to go. If one gallery is too noisy, I can leave and go to another one.
I’m really passionate about some of the galleries (like Ancient Worlds and Life on Earth) and I find I can just get distracted and lost in these galleries. They have noises in (background music or animal noises) but they are at a low level so I experience them as background sound which masks the other visitors, rather than over stimulating noise. Consistent and familiar noise like this is reassuring to me.
Sometimes I find it hard if I’m working on a project and everyone is talking at once or listening to music loudly, and I feel overloaded. When that happens I sit in a corner and listen to my own music. Feeling like I have a choice – to go to whichever gallery I want to, or to leave when I want, or just to sit quietly – is good because it means however I feel on that day, I can do what works for me. I wish there was a way to give me a pass or something, so that if I had to leave a tour, I could walk off without upsetting anyone or drawing attention to myself and re-join later.
Sammy’s sunflower lanyard
I feel like I have an invisible disability, so I don’t see myself reflected in society, or history. The museum recently collected some Barbie dolls who each have different disabilities, but there was no doll for someone who avoids eye contact, or doesn’t want to talk. Having one of the new sunflower lanyards makes me feel a bit more visible.
Barbie dolls recently collected by the museum that have different disabilities
I don’t go to many other museums but I’m really excited about working on this project because it’s the first time since I received my diagnosis that I’ve been asked about making a difference for other autistic people, something which I am passionate about. I want to work with Leeds Museums and the Neurodiverse Museum to help museums understand how they can work towards being more accessible.
I’d love to see some kind of badge at museum receptions that show that all the staff are trained, or tells me which toilets don’t have hand dryers, and which galleries are noisy. It would be even better if some of the staff were autistic. Then I would really know people understand. That would be the ultimate stamp of approval! I really struggle to get a part time job, but I love volunteering at the museum, it would be great if someday I felt that I could work in a building like that that I felt safe in.
By Sammy Jaques, volunteer at Leeds City Museum and consultant for The Neurodiverse Museum, a project with Sporting Heritage.