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Art For All

Museums can be scary places for children with autism and sensory disorders. But sensory-friendly events are making art- and its benefits- more accessible.

Nine-year-old Pablo Mosquera Garcia didn’t get much out of going to art museums.

Cultural venues like art museums and theaters are at the heart of many communities—offering aneducational experience, a place for people to come together and a connection to the creative world.

But not for kids like Pablo, who has high-functioning autism as well as sensory issues.

“When we went to museums before, he would behave nicely but just because he had to do it, notpaying attention at all to the surroundings of the museum, paintings, sculptures,” says Keller residentMargarita Garcia, Pablo’s mom. “He won’t pay attention in a crowded room, he won’t pay attention toverbal directions if there are too many surrounding noises, and he won’t participate in art activities if there are a lot ofpeople around him.”

For children with autism or sensory processing disorder (SPD), venues like art museums are usually inaccessible. Childrenwith SPD—many children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, also have sensory issues—tend to be very sensitiveto touch, smell, sound, sight and other senses; this can affect the way they respond to their environments. Naturally,the museum environment is full of sensory stimuli. That’s the whole point.

In the right environment, viewing andmaking art can be a perfect outlet for childrenwith sensory issues because it is expressive andsometimes tactile. But the typical art experienceis not tailored to kids with ASD or SPD—thebuildings are crowded and intimidating, thepieces are not always made to be touched, andart making with strange and messy materials cancause overstimulation.

Tina Fletcher, associate professor of occupationaltherapy at Texas Woman’s University, istrying to change that. She believes that if the artexperience could be repackaged, children withASD and SPD could reap the benefits too—andcommunal spaces that are inaccessible to kids likePablo can truly become shared spaces for all.

Wiggle Room

Fletcher’s research has found that noise, crowdsand unpredictability are among the biggestchallenges for children with sensory issues atmuseums and other cultural venues.

This means that if a family attempts to go toan art museum or concert, they might not get tostay for long.

“That’s what we usually see; their time atthe venue is cut short. And they have to reallyoverplan,” Fletcher says. Or, as in Pablo’s case,a child simply may not gain much from the experiencebecause of distractions. One of Fletcher’sstudies found that these sensory-avoidingor -seeking behaviors can interfere with a child’sability to benefit from museum visits.

While most museums and other facilitiescan’t be completely transformed into sensory-friendlyenvironments—sometimes these spacesrequire special lighting or include sounds as partof the art, for example—they can add special
programming to accommodate children withsensory issues, Fletcher says.

Take the Amon Carter Museum of AmericanArt. Once a month, the museum facilitates asensory-friendly program that allows kids to experiencethe collection by focusing on a theme anddiscussing the work with museum staff. Then, theyactually get to make art in a studio setting.

Pablo has been attending the Amon Carter’sSensory Saturdays for a year with his family, andGarcia says she’s noticed a huge improvement inPablo’s interaction with art.

“He participates in the art activities, makingcomments and answering questions about thetheme of the day,” she says. “Now visiting themuseums is not a challenging matter for us.Pablo knows that he does not have to touch butjust look, and that he can ask any question hewants about the art and [someone will] answerhim, and he loves that.”

Jessica Kennedy, the Amon Carter’s publicprograms manager, says children with SPD oftendon’t get the chance to be in large spaces like museums,and programs like Sensory Saturdays helpaccommodate them in a way that’s important.

“Large spaces can be intimidating just becauseof the number of people that are around,”Kennedy says. “Sometimes kids can’t controltheir motions or they’re not aware of their closenessto the artwork or other people. We’re tryingto make sure that this is a space for them.”

When touring the artwork, museum staffwill often talk about sights, smells and othersensations that are evoked by a piece to helpkids connect an abstract idea with real life—if apainting portrays a field, for example, the kidsare asked to think of the smell of grass. And inthe studio, kids explore textures like crumpledaluminum foil or draw something based on theartwork they’re looking at.

Kennedy says it’s not uncommon for SensorySaturdays to be a child’s first experiencewith art or a museum. “Being able to bring theirchild to a place that they never thought was possibleis huge,” she says.

With the help of Fletcher and her students,the Dallas Museum of Art has hosted more than300 attendees at each of its Autism AwarenessFamily Celebrations, a sensory-friendly eventheld three to four times a year.

Fletcher says the events are an opportunityfor the entire family to have a fun timetogether—something they may not get to dotoo often because of the restrictions caused bysensory struggles. She’s heard from parents whofeel judged by others for their kids screaming ornot following the rules at museums and othervenues, but special events like the one at theDMA, which happens in the morning beforethe museum opens to the public, provide thema safe space.

Even at an event tailored to their needs, kidswith SPD and ASD can become overwhelmedand overstimulated. But instead of feelingforced to leave, families can retreatto the sensory room Fletchersets up at the event. Themakeshift respite areacalms kids usingtechniques likeforward and backwardmovementon a glider andmild pressurefrom a weightedblanket, amongother tools.

“What wefound that kidsreally like areboxes that are bigenough to crawl into,like a fort. We give thema little flashlight and aweighted blanket, and we havea couple of glider swings, and that’s reallyall it takes to calm kids down,” Fletcher says.Social stories and a descriptive picture schedulefor the day’s event can also be a big help. “Ifchildren understand what’s happening duringan event, they tend to last longer, do better andhave a better time,” she explains.

Art as Therapy

At the DMA events, kids participate in sensory-friendlyactivities and art projects that use theprinciples of art therapy, a type of psychotherapyinvolving painting, drawing or modeling thatcan serve as a remedial activity for people witha wide range of disorders and conditions—fromkids with autism who have limited communicationskills to adults dealing with trauma.

It’s a challenge to quantify the impact of artmaking on children with autism and SPD, butaccording to the Monarch Center for Autismin Cleveland, Ohio, there is enough art therapyliterature to show that it is an effective, scientificallyproven ASD treatment option. Amongother benefits, it helps people with ASD learncalming, coping and relaxation strategies.

One common goal in art therapy, especiallyfor children with sensory issues, is to increasetolerance of the senses. When overstimulated,children with autism can become frustrated oravoidant in an effort to distract themselves fromunpleasant stimuli. Art therapy works to slowlyallow participants to explore textures, smells andother senses in a way they might otherwise avoid.

“If a kiddo has issues with touch or clay, wecan get them used to the feeling of using othermaterials first,” says Sharon Hartman, a FortWorth art therapist who works with the DMA.“Maybe they’ve never been in a situationwhere they’ve been able to stick their handsin bins of colored rice. It might be a sensationthey’ve never had, and they realize, ‘Ohthis isn’t so bad.’ It’s a good way for them toexplore the senses.”

In the long run, art gives them a language tohelp express what they’re not able to verbally,Hartman says. “It’s a great processingtool. They learn a lot aboutthemselves and their ownabilities. They feel pride,too. It increases a lotof social skills andtheir own abilities.”In group settingsespecially, art makinghelps themlearn to share, askfor help, talk aboutwhich senses theylike and don’t like,and practice havingdiscussions.

While the DMAdoesn’t offer formalizedtherapy at their sensory-friendlycelebrations, the artactivities there can have a similarimpact. One of Fletcher’s own studiesfound that for kids with learning disabilities, artmaking is an extension of their self-identity andcreativity. “Even kids with social challenges followa normal trajectory regarding art making,”says Fletcher, who was also a school therapist fornearly 30 years.

Emily Wiskera, manager ofaccess programs at the DMA, saysthat the success of the AutismAwareness Family Celebrations waswhat led to the creation of SensoryScouts, a once-a-month programdesigned for teens and tweens.

“An important part of ourbelief is that the museum shouldbe accessible to everyone. Especiallyfor children with autismor sensory processing disorders,we think of the museum as aninformal learning environment,”Wiskera says.

For Shannon Martin’s twodaughters, 14-year-old Racheland 9-year-old Jasmine, whoboth have learning disorders, theDMA’s sensory-friendly eventshave proven to be useful learningtools.

“It’s helpful that they take aparticular gallery or painting andtalk about it, and the childrenare allowed more wiggle space,”Martin says. “[The museum takes]that information, and they devisean activity that brings that themealive in art. They’re layering theinformation, and it’s critical forsensory-disordered children.”

Martin says Rachel hasautism and is a tactile learner,while Jasmine has dyslexia andis a tactile and auditory learner.She says Sensory Scouts hasbeen a gateway for learningthrough art in a place that allowsthem to be curious.

“The biggest challenge hasalways been with Jasmine becauseher main source for learning istactile and auditory, and she oftendoesn’t have the same respect forhow the rules work,” Martin says.“So she would always want totouch the art.”

The rules and social stories—in addition to a set time for artmaking—have helped curb Jasmine’surge to touch art that’s offlimits. “We don’t correct behaviorso much as eliminate behaviortriggers,” Fletcher says.

Always at the Ready

Another way to ensure facilitiesand events are sensory friendlyis by simply doing a walkthroughand deciding what canbe anticipated and what can’t,Fletcher says.

The Dallas Zoo is a goodexample. “The education staff atthe zoo and I walk the zoo andtry to anticipate traffic flow,crowding, unpredictable thingslike animals that are really loudor smell bad and, if we can’t fixit, create a story for the childrento help them prepare contingenciesand provide them withsuggestions for what they can doif these things happen,” she says.“A good example [of a socialstory] would be on being a goodcitizen at the zoo.”

Now, the Dallas Zoo and theDallas Arboretum and BotanicalGarden also have annual sensoryfriendlyevents. At the Arboretum,Fletcher designed the eventto lead kids and parents to theleast-used part of the venue fora scavenger hunt, where it’s lesscrowded, and created a sensoryhaven near the front of the venue.

None of these strategiesinterferes with other people’sexperiences, Fletcher says. Butthis kind of work has beentraditionally challenging formuseums and other venueswithout training or knowledgeof sensory issues. “How do youknow if the child who’s trying totouch this van Gogh painting isa child with autism or an intellectualdisability or just a childwith bad behavior? How do yourespond if the parents aren’t doingenough?” she says.

Fletcher says she’d alsolove to approach Six Flags andthe State Fair, where she sayssensory overload happens often,as well as provide venues withguidelines so they can implementstrategies on their own.

“It would be great if culturalarts venues implemented someof these supports for familiesall the time instead of only duringevents,” she says. Still, she’sfocused on helping more venuesadd sensory-friendly events andmake practical changes to accommodatesensitive audiences.It’s a start—and for families whoattend, her efforts have alreadyproduced results.

Garcia believes Sensory Saturdaysat the Amon Carter havegiven Pablo long-term benefits.He has a more self-confidentdemeanor, and he’s willing toparticipate in discussions andself-expression.

And now, he also loves to paint.