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Neurodiversity in Cultural Institutions: Making the Most of Visits and Welcoming Those with Diverse Needs

Jaclyn Kozak | University of Calgary
A Toolkit for Visitors, Self-Advocates, Caregivers, Cultural Institution Personnel and Others. This toolkit is written to benefit neurodiverse individuals and their families, caregivers and friends who wish to enjoy museums and other community resources. Individuals who work at cultural institutions are given resources to help improve visitor experiences.


Do you like visiting museums, science centers, art galleries, libraries, aquariums, nature centers, botanical gardens, or historical sites? Do you work at any of these places as an educator, interpreter, curator, programmer, researcher, admissions staff, security guard, director, exhibit designer, docent or guide? If so, this toolkit is for you. The first half of this toolkit is written to benefit individuals with neurodiversity and their families, caregivers and friends who wish to enjoy these community resources. The second part of this toolkit is written for those who work at cultural institutions. Together, this toolkit aims to improve physical and social accessibility to community spaces and events for neurodiverse people, and for us all.

The Story of Sam

Sam Sebastian is a five-year-old boy with autism whose family lives in a large central Canadian city. Sam’s family has struggled to find community activities that work for him. Sam is a clever and active child who loves being with his parents but sometimes bolts and runs off suddenly and can be quite loud in groups. Sam’s parents were always avid museum goers who looked forward to new exhibits coming to their region. Now, their experience is limited to spending most of the time with Sam in the children’s gallery. Sam really enjoys the children’s gallery but his parents would like to venture into other parts of the museum. Unfortunately, when they have tried to do so, they have been criticized because of Sam’s impulsive behaviours.  The museum patrons have been less than accommodating. Sam’s parents feel that the staff don’t understand - Sam is not ‘misbehaving’, but rather needs guidance and sensory support to feel comfortable in the museum’s large, cavernous spaces.


Sam’s parents were thrilled when they heard the museum’s new curator announced an initiative for children and adults with autism. The museum was intentionally inviting autistic individuals and their mentors/support personnel  through the exhibits outside the children’s gallery during the less busy times of the day. Sam and his parents immediately took advantage of the program. They really appreciated the opportunity to venture beyond the children’s gallery and explore the new exhibits together as a family. This change has made it easier and more satisfying for Sam and his family to navigate and experience the museum. His mother recently commented, “I’m concerned that without this support, we might have ended up losing our connection to the museum. It was just getting too hard. When they intentionally reached out with support, it made such a difference to our family.” Many cultural institutions are offering daily drop-in programming for neurodiverse learners. Some institutions, like the museum Sam visited, offer pre-booked times to specific spaces to accommodate individuals requiring a more supportive sensory environment.


Cultural institutions like museums, science centers, art galleries, libraries, historic sites, aquariums, nature centers, and botanical gardens are for all of us, including Sam. They are places where knowledge, skills and stories are shared, conserved, interpreted, and understood. They are places where we share, protect, and learn about our heritage and the things humans have achieved together like, art and science, and where we are reminded about events in our history that we should never forget.

Figure 1


Note: Reprinted from Flickr, “National Museum of Scotland” (2017). CC Image courtesy of Shadowgate.


Important as they are, cultural institutions can be overwhelming settings for neurodiverse people. They sometimes contain sensory triggers (e.g., noises, visual stimuli, tactile experiences) that create obstacles for neurodiverse people and their families, which prevent them from actively appreciating or participating in those spaces.  When cultural institutions maintain barriers to participation, they deny people the opportunity to share in cultural understanding and transmission (Riches, 2014).


Cultural institutions play a key role in transmitting culture because they decide what objects, buildings, and stories are preserved and whose history gets told. Museums, historic sites, art galleries, and libraries have been criticized for being elitist and perpetuating the status quo of discrimination and misrepresentation. It was reported in a recent study 90% of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) would visit their library more if the environment was made more sensory-friendly (Dimensions, 2019).

Museums, like libraries, have gone through fundamental restructuring since their beginnings, shifting the way that they fulfil their meaning in society by focusing their purpose on learning and visitor engagement instead of merely preserving collections (Deng, 2016). Libraries are more than just a collection of books. Museums are more than just artefacts and specimens. Art galleries are more than just old paintings by old masters. Many cultural institutions have shifted to a “community-led” model to be more accessible and representative of their entire community. A community-led model is based on building relationships within the community and basing decisions on “community needs to develop and deliver services” (EPL, 2013).

Figure 2


Note: Reprinted from Flickr, “Lunch at the Library” (2017). CC Image courtesy of Plymouth Libraries.

Children’s museums and science galleries in particular have emerged as welcoming places for a diversity of learners by offering sensory exploration and hands-on learning. Children’s museums often offer specific programming for neurodiverse individuals, such as the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, whose mission is to enable “play without boundaries”, or the Chicago Children's Museums’ “Play for All” events (Twardowski & Twardowski, 2018). Many of these places, such as the Ontario Science Centre (2020), as well at the Royal Ontario Museum (2020), have low-cost admission rates for people with disabilities, and free admission for support and aid workers.

Art galleries, art museums, and art festivals have also been supporting the disability movement by featuring disability culture and supporting artists with disabilities. One example is Toronto’s Tangled Art + Disability festival, formally the Abilities Arts festival, which has been providing accessibility-enhanced events since 2003 that promote and encourage artists with disabilities (Tangled Art + Disability, 2020) as well as producing an “Accessibility Toolkit: A guide to making art spaces accessible” (Zbitnew, 2018).


For Families: Preparing You & Your Family

Families can prepare for success and plan ahead to make the most of their experiences at cultural institutions. Connecting with the cultural institution is the best idea to help make your visit comfortable and fun. Either phone, email, or reach out through other social media platforms to discover more about the cultural institution.  See ‘Questions to Discover More About the Cultural Institution’ in Table 1 below as a prompt to guide your own questions.

Table 1

Questions to Discover More About the Cultural Institution:
□       Does the site offer any sensory-based or other special programs?
□       Hands-on activities
□       Sensory kits
□       Sensory spaces
Example: Halifax Public Libraries “Autism Tool Kits for Borrowing & Exploring”
□       Do they have any special events? Early or late openings with reduced noise and lights for sensory-sensitive audiences? Example: Manitoba Children’s Museum “Explore-Abilities Morning: A Sensory-Friendly Museum Event”
□       Does the cultural institutions have sensory maps that designate quiet zones, or highlight loud sounds or places with sound/light motion sensors? Do they offer any self-guided tours like audio tours or sensory guides, or activities?  
Example: Park’s Canada “Fort Langley National Historic Site Audio Tour”
□       Do they have any policies in their spaces that might impact you?
□       How do they communicate these policies, where can you find out?

Example: Royal Ontario’s Museum’s “Sensory Friendly Guide for Visitors”


Some cultural organizations post their policies, accessibility guides, and virtual orientation online to help you prepare before you arrive. While some accessibility guides and toolkits are written to share best practices with other cultural organizations, some are also specifically written for patrons visiting cultural institutions. Accessibility guides are also referred to as social guides, social narratives, accessibility FAQ, sensory-friendly guides, sensory maps, visual guides, visual storyboards, etc. Accessibility guides are parent-friendly reports that summarize the accessibility accommodations and the physical and cognitive barriers within a cultural institution. Examples of accessibility guides include the “Accessibility Bill of Rights” offered by Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada[2], as well as The Hands-On Children’s Museum Social Story[3].

Another way to plan ahead is utilize online platforms and apps that offer virtual tours and orientation. Many cultural organizations, particularly museums and art galleries, have welcomed Google cameras into their public spaces through apps like Google Arts & Culture, Google Maps and YouTube.  Google Arts & Culture[4] has over 500+ virtual tours of museums, art galleries, heritage sites, and online exhibits featuring internationally renowned museums such as The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City[5] and The British Museum in the United Kingdom[6], as well as sharing national sites like the Vancouver Art Gallery[7]. Patrons can virtually walk through spaces using the ‘museum view’.  If you don’t want to download the app, you can also virtually walk through spaces through Google Maps using ‘street view’. YouTube is another resource for orientation and education. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg[8] and the Toronto Zoo and Aquariums[9]  are examples of sites that have YouTube videos providing orientation to their facilities.

Another way to prepare for visits, particularly for young children, is to read about them.  Table 2 has a list of children’s literature that can help set the stage for your visit.  Take the time to talk about how you are preparing to visit a similar place. Be sure to emphasize the things that will excite or motivate you and your family – such as dinosaurs, architecture, family history, your memories and past experiences.

Table 2

Youth Friendly Reading List
Babar’s Museum of Art
by Laurent de Brunhoff
But, excuse me, that is my book
by Lauren Child
Curious George Visits the Library
by Margaret Rey
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!
by Jonah Winter
Meet Me at the Art Museum
by David Goldin
The Terrible Captain Jack Visits the Museum Or A Guide To Museum Manners for Incorrigible Pirate and the Like
by Diane Matyas
Tomás and the Library Lady
by Pat Mora

            If an individual is overly stimulated in new environments and require in-person gradual exposure to the actual facility, considering driving by the site several times before entry or initially just check out the building’s exterior, gardens, and outdoor space; or enter the building but only up to the front desk or cafeteria or gift shop.

Not only are cultural organizations preparing you for your visit, more and more cultural organizations are offering specific programs, events, and spaces for sensory-diverse individuals. Sensory rooms, sensory kits, sensory maps, and hands-on activities are just a few best practices being offered at cultural institutions.

Hands-on activities are activities involving doing, creating, playing, testing, tasting, cooking, moving, dancing, singing, recording, and so on. Some examples include digging tours or dig-boxes at fossil centers and museums, art-making programs in art and science galleries. Many libraries facilitate hands-on literacy-based activities for all ages.  Story-times are a great example of a hands-on literacy-based activity that could involve singing, games, activities, and learning hands-on skills such as ASL.  Hands-on displays and exhibits are things such as mounted specimens like antlers or fossils at museums, tactile displays for touching like ‘touch tanks’ at science centers and aquariums, as well as ‘touchable art’ in art galleries originally developed for the blind and visually impaired.

Sensory rooms are welcoming spaces that help engage, regulate, and calm the senses through calming lights and sounds, sensory tools, and soft objects. Sensory kits may be available at some of the cultural institutions that offer self-guided activities and sensory tools, see Figure 3 for ‘Sensory Toolkit Examples’.

Figure 3

You may want to prepare and individualize additional activities for your family from the ideas in Figure 3. Building your own sensory kit can help individuals attend and sustain their interests during a visit. There are a number of things you might want to include in your sensory kit. For example, you could incorporate sensory tools, visual supports, and activity prompts such as full-body exercises including games like follow the leader, copy-cat, scavenger/treasure hunts or slow-motion re-enactments. For detailed descriptions of activities, go to Appendix A: Activities & Games.  Remember that you are an expert on what your child and family needs. So, what tools are needed to reduce the barriers of the cultural organizations in your community? How could you or others advocate for your needs for greater participation in cultural institutions?

For Cultural Institution Personnel

Cultural institutions can have physical and cognitive barriers that make participation more difficult for people with diverse learning, sensory, or environmental needs. Events and programs that address such needs can help to overcome these barriers. For instance, many organizations - particularly children’s museums, nature centers, science galleries, and libraries - now offer specific programs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and have taken steps to develop operational policies that aim to create welcoming spaces for a wider diversity of learners. Table 3 provides ‘Best Practices’  ideas for cultural institutions to consider.

Table 3

Best Practices
Spaces & Programs
ü  Co-develop exhibits, events, and spaces
ü  Host exhibitions advancing awareness about neurodiversity
Example: Vancouver Art Gallery’s “Access Gallery”
ü  Offer early and late special openings
ü  Host meet-ups, gatherings for frequently visiting groups, clubs, agencies
ü  Create opportunities to explore topics of interest for neurodiverse individuals that aren’t always focused on neurodiversity and disability
Example: Hamilton Children’s Museum’s “Games Night at the Museum”
Institutional & Staff Policies
ü  Build inclusive employment programs
ü  Offer free admission for educators, support and care workers
ü  Make family washrooms accessible spaces and implement scent-free policies, policies of age inclusion based on developmental age, and staff-training about developmental disabilities
Example: The Museum of Modern Art’s “Sensory Map: For finding seating areas and less crowded, quieter spaces”

ü  Offer way-finding and orientation in accessible language and formats like access guides, social guides, social narratives, visual checklists / supports / storyboards
Example: Royal Ontario’s Museum’s “Sensory Friendly Guide for Visitors”

In her book, ‘The Participatory Museum’, Nina Simon explains how cultural institutions including museums can involve communities in decision making, replacing some of the more traditional ways in which power rests with ‘experts.’ For Simon (2010), a participatory museum is one that gives power to people by creating collaborative relationships with the community. Asking neurodiverse people what they need is a great way to be more accessible and share in decision making. See Table 4 for questions that can help you reflect on how ready your organization is to be genuinely inclusive (adapted from Museums, Libraries and Archives, 2004):

Table 4

Questions for Cultural Institution Personnel
□       Are your staff trained to provide support and ensure that neurodiverse people are welcome in the cultural institution?
□       Do you promote your cultural institution as a place for neurodiverse people?
□       Does your cultural institution receive input from the disabled community?
□       Does your cultural institution offer specific programming or events for neurodiverse people?
□       How sensory friendly is the environment of your cultural institution?
□       How can your cultural institution make better connections with existing families, groups,     agencies?
□       What outlets for feedback does your cultural institution offer?
□       What questions are you asking about diversity and inclusion?
□       How are you hearing from people with neurodevelopmental disabilities?
□       Whose voices are being heard? Self-advocates, caregivers, professionals, organizations?


       Individuals and families living with neurodiversity are likely already visiting your cultural institution. It is also likely, however, that some cannot visit as often as they’d like because of health, social, sensory, physical and economic barriers, including barriers within your institution. How could you find out what is working and what is not?

     Evaluation includes both patrons and staff. Evaluation can be more than just surveys, and talk-backs are a great example of a creative evaluative approach. Talk-backs “create successful visitor dialogue experiences” (Simon, 2009) and allow community members and staff to share in discussion by using prompts, questions, and other inventive facilitation methods such as writing, drawing, social media, voting, challenge-based activities, photography, and even recording audio or video. They are helpful for developing staff awareness and increasing community input. For ideas on what kind of questions your talk-back could ask to increase community input, see Appendix C: Talk-backs.


Figure 4


Note: Reprinted from Flickr, “Royal Alberta Museum” (2015). CC Image courtesy of IQ Remix.

Cultural institutions need not reinvent the wheel; many museums, libraries, science and art galleries have role-modeled neurodiverse-friendly initiatives and spaces. Cultural institutions also do not need to be the experts in neurodiversity, either: instead, they should consult with neurodiverse people before making decisions on their behalf. Advocacy organizations in your area can help you to connect with people living with autism and intellectual disabilities. They can also provide guidance and help inform the autism community about new opportunities at your cultural institution.  There is a growing list of cultural organizations that are creating awareness and bridging connections between disabled and neurodiverse communities, see Table 5 below for examples.

Table 5

Resources, Training, Toolkits
Boston Children’s Museum and Chicago Children’s Museum. (2012). Learning Together: Families in Museums Staff Training Curriculum.
Dimensions. (2019). Free Autism Friendly Training for Libraries.
Libraries & Autism: We’re Connected. (2020)
Museum, Arts and Culture Access Consortium. (2019). Advancing Accessibility at New York’s Cultural Institutions for People with All Abilities.
Michele Taylor. (n.d). Disability Toolkit for Museums. Cultural Heritage Without Borders.

Note:  For an expanded version see Appendix D: Resources, Training, Toolkits.

Our communities need more welcoming spaces for people like Sam and his family. We hope this toolkit has sparked ideas for you and your family, your cultural institution, and your community. For shareable ideas and printable worksheets and tools, please see Appendix A, B, C, and D below.


I would like to extend special thanks to librarians at both the Edmonton Public Library and the University of Calgary’s library, as well as research guidance from Sheila Laroque and Ryan Beissel. I am also appreciative and owe a tremendous thanks to various colleagues and mentors from the Royal Alberta Museum, Rutherford House Provincial Historical Site, the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, the Manitoba Museum, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, Lower Fort Gary National Historic Site, Parks Canada, and the Alberta Museums Association.



Deng, L. (2016). Equity of access to cultural heritage: The influence of the museum experience on learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Retrieved from

Dimensions. (2019). Free autism friendly training for libraries. Retrieved from

Edmonton Public Library. (2013). Community Led Service Philosophy Toolkit. Retrieved from

IQRemix. (2015). Royal Alberta Museum. [Graphic]. Flickr. Retrieved from

Museums, Libraries, Archives. (2004). Access For All Toolkit: Enabling inclusion for museum, libraries and archives. University of Northumbria. Retrieved from

Ontario Science Centre. (2020). Accessibility. Retrieved from

Plymouth Libraries. (2017). Lunch at the Library [image]. Flicker. Retrieved from

Riches. (2014, November 27). Cultural institutions. Riches Resources. Retrieved from

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. (2020). Accessibility Bill of Rights. Retrieved from

Royal Ontario Museum. (2020). ROM Sensory Friendly Guide for Visitors.  Retrieved from

Shadowgate. (2017). National Museum of Scotland [image]. Flicker. Retrieved from

Tangled Art + Disability. (2020). About Us. Retrieved from

Twardowski, J., Twardowski, B. (2018, September 26).  Museums with Special Programs for Special Needs Children. Family Vacation Critic. Retrieved from

Zbitnew, Anne. (2018). Accessibility Toolkit: A guide to making art spaces accessible. Tangled Art + Disability. Humber College: Toronto: ON.  Retrieved from





Appendix A: Activities & Games                             

Musical Tour. Overwhelmed in the art gallery? Put you headphones on to some classical music, or nature sounds and go for a walk around in your head.
Sensory/Object Bingo. Make your own bingo card of things you will be seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, hearing!
Feelings Game. This is a fun game to play looking at animal or people dioramas, or artwork. Have a conversation about what the creatures in the scene are feeling, and why you think that way.
Gnome Travels. Classic twist on the steal-your-neighbours-lawn- gnome and take it on a vacation. This time, borrow a friend or an object and take it for a tour and take lots and lots of photos of the toy, teddy, or chosen object on its journey.
Slow Motion. Either come up with a phrase of your own or just declare: slooow motiooon in a Very. Slow. Controlled. Way… Pretending to move your body like you are walking through molasse.
Follow the Leader/Copycat. One person copies the other persons movements or phrases. You can also copy people in pictures, or animals in dioramas. If in less busy open, outside space you could play a classic game of follow the leader, switching off leaders and letting them come up with a repetitive motion or sound for everyone to copy. This is especially fun while visiting the zoo and moving to the next exhibit.
Mime That. Like the copycat above, mime/pretend to be doing the things in the exhibit/display. Extra fun if your friend has their back turned and tries to guess what they will see from your movements
A Made-Up Nonsensical Tour. Don’t know what that old-timey and old-fashioned looking thing is? No sweat, make it up. And take your friend on your wonderful made-up tour of maybe a place you’ve never visited before.

Old vs New. Is it old? Is it new? How long ago was it made? Is it possibly from the future?!?

The Silent & Pointing Tour. No words. Just walk through a space, gallery, exhibit pointing at the cool things you want each other to see.
Field journal. Sketch field drawings of the things you see, write observations and labels to your field journal. See ‘How to be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum’ (2008) by Keri Smith for field journal ideas.
Drawing, Sketching, Painting, Crafting. Many cultural organizations have facilitated art-making programs, some cultural organizations have bring-your-own-supplies and craft events. Check with your cultural institution to see what you are welcome to bring to a cultural institution.
Letters to… an object? A painting? An artist? A staff member?!




Appendix B: Questions for Cultural Institutions   

Idea: Have a rapid brainstorming session with your staff or ask one of these questions at each staff meeting, or create a talkback (or talkbacks) to receive input from staff.

Are your staff trained to be welcoming to neurodiverse people? Yes/No? If not, why not?
If so, how?
Do you promote your cultural institution as a place for neurodiverse people? Yes/No? If not, why not?
If so, how?
Does your cultural institution receive input from the disabled community? Yes/No? If not, why not?
If so, how?
Are you inviting needs, preferences and perspectives of people with neurodevelopmental disabilities? Yes/No? If not, why not?
If so, how?
Are the voices of self-advocates, caregivers, professionals, organizations being heard? Yes/No? If not, why not?
If so, how?
How sensory friendly is the environment of your cultural institution? Rate on scale 1-10
How can your cultural institution make better connections with families, groups, agencies?

Your answer here

How can you learn more from those who cannot visit as much as they would like because of health, social, sensory, physical and economic barriers? How could you help to overcome the barriers? Your answer here
What outlets for feedback does your cultural institution offer? Would you consider your evaluative methods engaging, creative?

Your answer here
What methods are you asking about diversity and inclusion?

Your answer here



Perform a Sensory Scan

Locate and create a map with pinpoints and legends for sensory considerations. Idea: Map these out and turn them into a sensory map!

What is it? Write name of feature, room, exhibit here:



(lights, video, sound, audio, toilets)

Appendix C: Talk-backs

Questions to ask your visitors/audience/community members:

To Inform Program Development Ask
“I dream of..” or “I wish for...” questions?
Which of the following activities would you be most interested in [provide list of sensory-based programs and events]

To Identify Strengths Ask
Would you be interested in joining a committee?
Would you be interested in being sent a survey?

To Identify Barriers Ask
What are the kinds of activities in which you cannot participate when at [insert name your cultural institution]?
Where are the loudest places in [insert name of your cultural institution]?

To Gauge Visitor, Audience, and Staff Diversity Ask
How knowledgeable is leadership at your organization about neurodiversity?
How knowledgeable are staff and volunteers at your organization about neurodiversity?
What challenges have been experienced because of a neurodiversity?
How have these challenges been addressed?

See also

Simon, N. (2009).  ‘Designing Talkback Platforms for Different Dialogic Goals’ Museums 2.0 Retrieved from


Appendix D: Resources, Training, Toolkits

Association of Children’s Museums. (2020).
Boston Children’s Museum and Chicago Children’s Museum. (2012). Learning Together: Families in Museums Staff Training Curriculum.
Dimensions. (2019). Free Autism Friendly Training for Libraries.
Libraries & Autism: We’re Connected. (2020)
Michele Taylor. (n.d). Disability Toolkit for Museums. Cultural heritage Without Borders.
Museum, Arts and Culture Access Consortium. (2019). Advancing Accessibility at New York’s Cultural Institutions for People with All Abilities.
Museums, Libraries, Archives. (2004). Access For All Toolkit: Enabling inclusion for museum, libraries and archives. University of Northumbria. Retrieved from
Zbitnew, Anne. (2018). Accessibility Toolkit: A guide to making art spaces accessible. Tangled Art + Disability. Humber College: Toronto: ON.  Retrieved from
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