Ashley Smith-Hammond

A new report sheds light on the value of accessibility for those with ASD and SPD.

We hear a lot about venues that are working hard to improve their physical accessibility. But new research has suggested that significantly less is being done to include those who are neurodivergent.

Children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and/or Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) are among those audience groups with particular access needs.

A significant number of people are affected. The National Autistic Society report that over 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum. That’s around one per cent of the UK population.

Removing barriers

Fortunately, more and more cultural organisations in Scotland are reaching out to remove barriers for people with ASD or SPD. Among them are Glasgow Film Theatre, which holds regular autism-friendly screenings and the Macrobert Art Centre in Stirling, with its autism-friendly events. Both organisations are profiled in our podcast on reaching out to audiences with disabilities. Plus, the GFT recently became the first cinema in the UK to win the Autism Friendly Award.

The Access Scottish Theatre guide is a listings service for all the accessible performances taking place across the country. It uses a ‘relaxed performance’ tag to indicate autism-friendly events, showcasing the dozens more who are putting in the extra effort. There’s more good information on supporting neurodivergent practitioners in a recent piece by Susan Jones on potential barriers to funding and practice.

Increasing access doesn’t have to be a huge task. There are a number of simple steps you can take to make your cultural destination more ASD/SPD friendly.

We’ve looked into the results of a recent report by disabled artist Beth Davis-Hofbauer, to offer insight into how organisations can better cater to autistic audience members … and why it matters so much to so many.

Reaching out

Over two months Beth conducted a survey with 49 adults with ASD and families of children on the spectrum. She also interviewed autistic artists and those who work with people who suffer from PMLD (profound and multiple learning disabilities).

The study found that – as expected – many traditional galleries and museums are completely inaccessible for a lot of people. But the interviews also elicited a lot of suggestions for potential solutions.

Sensory overload

Key for many of those questioned was a willingness to engage with cultural space in their own way. In fact, 97.5 per cent of those who had used sensory materials had found them to be beneficial.

Beth, who is a mother to an autistic child with severe sensory problems, commented in an article for a-n:

This is not to suggest that we should expect galleries to become art-themed sensory rooms, but that they should look at these spaces and incorporate some of their elements within the gallery context.

When she asked those who took part in the study what they wanted, most participants said that they felt that reduced sound and calming noises would be most beneficial. The research also found that using social stories made with interactive animations, simple photo stories or additional files that could be downloaded from an institution’s website took a lot of stress out of a visit for all involved.

Explain and explore

Giving visitors a chance to explore materials was also found to be particularly beneficial. An oil painting in a gallery could, for example, have a separate panel installed next to it with thick oil paint applied. An audible and written instruction could then invite visitors to interact with the physical sensation of the thick paint, bringing them closer to the painting and engaging their senses.

Visual aids such as photos, muted and neutral colours and touchscreens for information were also found to be useful ways to include autistic audiences. These methods can let ASD audiences know how to interact with work/displays, making a gallery or museum experience a simpler one due to the additional challenge those with ASD face in interpreting ambiguous situations.

Beth’s research has been welcomed by cultural institutions that are looking to become truly autism-friendly rather than just paying lip-service to the idea of ‘access for all’.

Beth herself commented: “We owe it to autistic adults, teenagers and children to not leave them behind, to not stall promising careers and put young people off the arts. Ultimately, we need to make them understand that it is OK that they view and experience the world differently.”


Main image credit: Autism by National Human Genome (CC BY 2.0)