Empowering autistic children: Experiencing a museum through a customised app

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For most of us, a visit to the museum is a chance to relax, to learn interesting stories from our past. We can probably remember school visits to museums when we were younger. However, for some children, the visit can be challenging: namely autistic children.  

Some research highlights that involving children with autism in recreational activities helps to support inclusion, reinforces positive behaviours, and enhances well-being.  Within this context, a museum visit is considered a pleasant way to spend leisure time, as it provides interesting stories to inspire and engage visitors; while offering opportunities for experiential learning through play-based activities. 

In response to the growing international drive for equal rights and diversity, museums have been encouraged to embrace new ways to provide access to services, with a focus on providing access to people with a diverse range of disabilities. This coupled with an ongoing rise in diagnoses of autism has led museums to address issues of integration. Considering the needs of autistic visitors, museums have attempted to integrate an individualised supportive environment and to provide sensory-friendly activities. In addition, improvements have been made to the physical spaces of these environments. Responding to the prevalence of digital media, museums have gone one step further to consider digital practices as a means of engaging visitors with various impairments. However, the adoption of mobile services in museums seems to target specific groups, and there is little work regarding digital platforms developed specifically for autistic people.

With technology for autistic users being well researched with many attributed benefits, the role of technology in museums represents a timely area of study – this is the focus of my PhD work.

Benefits of technology for autistic users includes:

  1. Slower presentation of information/communication;
  2. Reduced pressures of completing activity (with others);
  3. Computers and technologies can be predictable, systematic and logical; all supporting the strengths of the autistic communities.

With this in mind novel technology programs have been developed to promote various aspects of education, communication, and entertainment, as well as social skills. 

My PhD study has been focused on addressing the potential of using digital services in a museum for autistic visitors. It investigated the views and impact of a digital museum experience (through a museum-based app) of autistic children. One of the main aims was to examine whether a museum-based app could be a mediating tool to enable groups of autistic children to have an inclusive experience in a barrier-free environment. 

My study was conducted in several stages, and cycles of an iterative process were included to help build an optimal version of the touch-screen interface. This study was conducted in collaboration with a special educational needs school and the M Shed museum in Bristol. The design and development of the app was based on existing literature coupled with recommendations and feedback from the participating children.  

So far, the findings suggest that a museum-based app was viewed as a useful tool to provide equal opportunities for autistic children in which to participate with museum-related activities.  Given that autistic people can encounter profound challenges in their daily life and feel marginalized from society, a specific adaptation is necessary in this context (a museum). The use of the app during the visit seemed to act as a bridge and to guide the children by focusing on specific exhibits in the gallery. The data also revealed that the choice of the exhibits through play-based activities encouraged the children to be more motivated and to remain focused on the requested tasks.

Overall, the findings from this study support the idea that:

  1. The use of technology-based museum activities can contribute to the inclusion of the autistic community.
  2. The role of partnerships with specialists from different fields are an important aspect of providing high quality outcomes.

This study aimed to shed light on an under researched area and to inform future policy and services provided by museums. This, in turn, could help young autistic people (and their caregivers) access museums in meaningful and supportive ways – and so they can get more out of the experience. 

Author: Dimitra Magkafa is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Arts, Cultural Industries and Education, the University of the West of England.