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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 an educational 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, not paying attention at all to the surroundings of the museum, paintings, sculptures,” says Keller resident Margarita Garcia, Pablo’s mom. “He won’t pay attention in a crowded room, he won’t pay attention to verbal directions if there are too many surrounding noises, and he won’t participate in art activities if there are a lot of people around him.”

For children with autism or sensory processing disorder (SPD), venues like art museums are usually inaccessible. Children with SPD—many children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, also have sensory issues—tend to be very sensitive to 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 and making art can be a perfect outlet for children with sensory issues because it is expressive and sometimes tactile. But the typical art experience is not tailored to kids with ASD or SPD—the buildings are crowded and intimidating, the pieces are not always made to be touched, and art making with strange and messy materials can cause overstimulation.

Tina Fletcher, associate professor of occupational therapy at Texas Woman’s University, is trying to change that. She believes that if the art experience could be repackaged, children with ASD and SPD could reap the benefits too—and communal spaces that are inaccessible to kids like Pablo can truly become shared spaces for all.

Wiggle Room

Fletcher’s research has found that noise, crowds and unpredictability are among the biggest challenges for children with sensory issues at museums and other cultural venues.

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

“That’s what we usually see; their time at the venue is cut short. And they have to really overplan,” Fletcher says. Or, as in Pablo’s case, a child simply may not gain much from the experience because of distractions. One of Fletcher’s studies found that these sensory-avoiding or -seeking behaviors can interfere with a child’s ability to benefit from museum visits.

While most museums and other facilities can’t be completely transformed into sensory-friendly environments—sometimes these spaces require special lighting or include sounds as part of the art, for example—they can add special
programming to accommodate children with sensory issues, Fletcher says.

Take the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Once a month, the museum facilitates a sensory-friendly program that allows kids to experience the collection by focusing on a theme and discussing the work with museum staff. Then, they actually get to make art in a studio setting.

Pablo has been attending the Amon Carter’s Sensory Saturdays for a year with his family, and Garcia says she’s noticed a huge improvement in Pablo’s interaction with art.

“He participates in the art activities, making comments and answering questions about the theme of the day,” she says. “Now visiting the museums is not a challenging matter for us. Pablo knows that he does not have to touch but just look, and that he can ask any question he wants about the art and [someone will] answer him, and he loves that.”

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

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

When touring the artwork, museum staff will often talk about sights, smells and other sensations that are evoked by a piece to help kids connect an abstract idea with real life—if a painting portrays a field, for example, the kids are asked to think of the smell of grass. And in the studio, kids explore textures like crumpled aluminum foil or draw something based on the artwork they’re looking at.

Kennedy says it’s not uncommon for Sensory Saturdays to be a child’s first experience with art or a museum. “Being able to bring their child to a place that they never thought was possible is huge,” she says.

With the help of Fletcher and her students, the Dallas Museum of Art has hosted more than 300 attendees at each of its Autism Awareness Family Celebrations, a sensory-friendly event held three to four times a year.

Fletcher says the events are an opportunity for the entire family to have a fun time together—something they may not get to do too often because of the restrictions caused by sensory struggles. She’s heard from parents who feel judged by others for their kids screaming or not following the rules at museums and other venues, but special events like the one at the DMA, which happens in the morning before the museum opens to the public, provide them a safe space.

Even at an event tailored to their needs, kids with SPD and ASD can become overwhelmed and overstimulated. But instead of feeling forced to leave, families can retreat to the sensory room Fletcher sets up at the event. The makeshift respite area calms kids using techniques like forward and backward movement on a glider and mild pressure from a weighted blanket, among other tools.

“What we found that kids really like are boxes that are big enough to crawl into, like a fort. We give them a little flashlight and a weighted blanket, and we have a couple of glider swings, and that’s really all it takes to calm kids down,” Fletcher says. Social stories and a descriptive picture schedule for the day’s event can also be a big help. “If children understand what’s happening during an event, they tend to last longer, do better and have a better time,” she explains.

Art as Therapy

At the DMA events, kids participate in sensory-friendly activities and art projects that use the principles of art therapy, a type of psychotherapy involving painting, drawing or modeling that can serve as a remedial activity for people with a wide range of disorders and conditions—from kids with autism who have limited communication skills to adults dealing with trauma.

It’s a challenge to quantify the impact of art making on children with autism and SPD, but according to the Monarch Center for Autism in Cleveland, Ohio, there is enough art therapy literature to show that it is an effective, scientifically proven ASD treatment option. Among other benefits, it helps people with ASD learn calming, coping and relaxation strategies.

One common goal in art therapy, especially for children with sensory issues, is to increase tolerance of the senses. When overstimulated, children with autism can become frustrated or avoidant in an effort to distract themselves from unpleasant stimuli. Art therapy works to slowly allow participants to explore textures, smells and other senses in a way they might otherwise avoid.

“If a kiddo has issues with touch or clay, we can get them used to the feeling of using other materials first,” says Sharon Hartman, a Fort Worth art therapist who works with the DMA. “Maybe they’ve never been in a situation where they’ve been able to stick their hands in bins of colored rice. It might be a sensation they’ve never had, and they realize, ‘Oh this isn’t so bad.’ It’s a good way for them to explore the senses.”

In the long run, art gives them a language to help express what they’re not able to verbally, Hartman says. “It’s a great processing tool. They learn a lot about themselves and their own abilities. They feel pride, too. It increases a lot of social skills and their own abilities.” In group settings especially, art making helps them learn to share, ask for help, talk about which senses they like and don’t like, and practice having discussions.

While the DMA doesn’t offer formalized therapy at their sensory-friendly celebrations, the art activities there can have a similar impact. One of Fletcher’s own studies found that for kids with learning disabilities, art making is an extension of their self-identity and creativity. “Even kids with social challenges follow a normal trajectory regarding art making,” says Fletcher, who was also a school therapist for nearly 30 years.

Emily Wiskera, manager of access programs at the DMA, says that the success of the Autism Awareness Family Celebrations was what led to the creation of Sensory Scouts, a once-a-month program designed for teens and tweens.

“An important part of our belief is that the museum should be accessible to everyone. Especially for children with autism or sensory processing disorders, we think of the museum as an informal learning environment,” Wiskera says.

For Shannon Martin’s two daughters, 14-year-old Rachel and 9-year-old Jasmine, who both have learning disorders, the DMA’s sensory-friendly events have proven to be useful learning tools.

“It’s helpful that they take a particular gallery or painting and talk about it, and the children are allowed more wiggle space,” Martin says. “[The museum takes] that information, and they devise an activity that brings that theme alive in art. They’re layering the information, and it’s critical for sensory-disordered children.”

Martin says Rachel has autism and is a tactile learner, while Jasmine has dyslexia and is a tactile and auditory learner. She says Sensory Scouts has been a gateway for learning through art in a place that allows them to be curious.

“The biggest challenge has always been with Jasmine because her main source for learning is tactile and auditory, and she often doesn’t have the same respect for how the rules work,” Martin says. “So she would always want to touch the art.”

The rules and social stories—in addition to a set time for art making—have helped curb Jasmine’s urge to touch art that’s off limits. “We don’t correct behavior so much as eliminate behavior triggers,” Fletcher says.

Always at the Ready 

Another way to ensure facilities and events are sensory friendly is by simply doing a walkthrough and deciding what can be anticipated and what can’t, Fletcher says.

The Dallas Zoo is a good example. “The education staff at the zoo and I walk the zoo and try to anticipate traffic flow, crowding, unpredictable things like animals that are really loud or smell bad and, if we can’t fix it, create a story for the children to help them prepare contingencies and provide them with suggestions for what they can do if these things happen,” she says. “A good example [of a social story] would be on being a good citizen at the zoo.”

Now, the Dallas Zoo and the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden also have annual sensoryfriendly events. At the Arboretum, Fletcher designed the event to lead kids and parents to the least-used part of the venue for a scavenger hunt, where it’s less crowded, and created a sensory haven near the front of the venue.

None of these strategies interferes with other people’s experiences, Fletcher says. But this kind of work has been traditionally challenging for museums and other venues without training or knowledge of sensory issues. “How do you know if the child who’s trying to touch this van Gogh painting is a child with autism or an intellectual disability or just a child with bad behavior? How do you respond if the parents aren’t doing enough?” she says.

Fletcher says she’d also love to approach Six Flags and the State Fair, where she says sensory overload happens often, as well as provide venues with guidelines so they can implement strategies on their own.

“It would be great if cultural arts venues implemented some of these supports for families all the time instead of only during events,” she says. Still, she’s focused on helping more venues add sensory-friendly events and make practical changes to accommodate sensitive audiences. It’s a start—and for families who attend, her efforts have already produced results.

Garcia believes Sensory Saturdays at the Amon Carter have given Pablo long-term benefits. He has a more self-confident demeanor, and he’s willing to participate in discussions and self-expression. 

And now, he also loves to paint.