PTS Helped This Museum’s Revolution in Autism Accessibility
Could a museum ever bring history to life too vividly for visitors?
That question faced the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA, as it thought about its accessibility to people with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
The Museum strives to engage visitors’ senses—”to help you imagine what the past was like,” Tyler Putnam, Gallery Education Manager, explains. “There are smellable, touchable, immersive environments. There are gunshots and bright lights. All those things are incredibly evocative and stimulating.”
But Museum staff, aware visitors would have various levels of ability and sensitivity, wanted to avoid overstimulating those who’d find the sensory stimuli too “surprising and shocking.”
So they turned to Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) for advice.
With input from Pam Hackett (PTS Co-Founder and Co-Managing Partner) and others on the PTS team, the Museum found creative ways to bring visitors with Autism, SPD, vision loss, and other special needs into its vivid representations of the Revolution.
Making a New Museum Accessible to All “Humans in the Space”
When the Museum opened in April 2017, several staff members were personally familiar with issues affecting the disability community, such as the need for Autism accessibility. Bailey Gamberg—now a full-time Education Coordinator; then a part-time Educator giving tours—had even written her Master’s thesis about accessibility. But the pressures of launching a high-profile, $150 million museum initially pushed accessibility issues aside.
Gamberg recalls one tour during which she realized the Museum wasn’t yet ready to meet all its visitors’ needs. “I had a special education class come in,” she remembers. “They were 12 students who were on the spectrum or had different sensory sensitivities. I felt overwhelmed, not really knowing what to do in the galleries to accommodate them and help them feel more comfortable.”
It wasn’t long before staff soon started exploring how to make the Museum available to many different people.
“How do you fill it with programming that appeals to a 65-year-old from China who’s there with their grandson and someone on the Autism spectrum?” Putnam asks, offering an example of the diverse patronage the Museum strives to serve. “We wouldn’t really know how to do that until we put humans in the space.”
The Museum was asking the right questions, and PTS had the answers.
Specific Autism Accessibility Solutions for Visitors
Early in the Museum’s planning, educational staff reached out to multiple contacts for advice on accessibility best practices. “Obviously,” says Putnam, “we talked to a lot of people we never talked to again!”
But the Museum kept talking with PTS. “Pam offered a lot of early advice on some of our school, family, and educational programming,” says Putnam. “She also offered some really useful insights, early on, into the type of handling objects we might use, and the kind of environments and audience we might anticipate.”
Ongoing conversations with Pam and PTS practitioners, as well as with people living with disabilities and disorders, have helped increase the Museum’s accessibility to visitors with Autism and other needs.
For example, the Museum developed a hands-on “discovery center,” Revolution Place. Geared especially toward children ages 5-12, Revolution Place puts visitors in a recreated military encampment, tavern, home, and an 18th-century meeting house. Pam and PTS clinicians helped develop Revolution Place’s interactive elements, such as its touchscreens and reproduction objects.
The Museum was already offering a sensory guide highlighting its more and less intense galleries, but wanted to do more and stage specific, sensory-friendly events. As a result, PTS helped design a “Relaxed Experience Morning.”
The Museum opens an hour early, giving visitors with Autism and other needs free entry to experience attractions at muted volume levels. The mornings also include sensory-friendly, hands-on activities led by accessibility-trained educators.
For example, guests can handle recreated items from a Revolutionary Era soldier’s knapsack “at their own pace and in their own way,” says Gamberg. “About 18 people showed up, and we’re hoping to have those every other month for the foreseeable future.”
Museum Staff Training and School Personnel Resources
The training Museum full- and part-time employees receive already includes attention to accessibility issues. But the Museum hopes to incorporate even more, in conjunction with PTS and its network of contacts, so it can better serve visitors with Autism and other special sensory needs.
Its future collaboration with PTS will also include therapist-developed resources for use with school programs. “We give a lot of material to chaperones and teachers of visiting school groups,” says Putnam. “But until a meeting with Pam, I hadn’t thought about what material we could provide to one-on-one aides to help move them out of the chaperone category into the teacher category.”
“When you’re a tour guide and have a group of 18 students,” adds Gamberg, “and one of those students has sensory sensitivities, you want to accommodate, but it’s very difficult to create a one-on-one scenario. But if there’s a way to provide paraprofessionals a laminated sheet of questions to help them have a one-on-one conversation with that student about some things they’re seeing and feeling and hearing, you create a better experience for that student, because that tour guide can’t create a one-on-one experience for everyone in the group.”
Is Progressing Special Education Your Passion?
The Museum’s thought and effort has earned it the Certified Autism Center™ (CAC) designation. This certification, granted by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), recognizes the Museum’s commitment to Autism accessibility in its programming.
PTS has helped the Museum rethink existing programs and create new ones to serve visitors with sensory issues more effectively. Even when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put school field trips “on hold,” the partnership continued. The Museum knows its expertise, exhibits, and experiences can augment virtual learning, and wants to offer that enrichment to as many students as possible.
“PTS has been incredibly gracious and generous with their time and their knowledge,” says Putnam. “Everyone has been really excited to talk about how to push this work farther along.”
If you’re a pediatric therapist excited about making education accessible to more students with special needs, consider joining the PTS team. Claim your free copy of our special report on practicing school-based therapy as an independent contractor today.