In early 2018, the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) started thinking about how we could help children with sensory sensitivities and their families to access the museums in a way that worked for them.

“People aren’t aware you’ve used every ounce of your energy to get there [the museum]” Parent from focus group

“It was a really special opportunity to be in beautiful surroundings that we would not have visited ordinarily. He will undoubtedly reflect, remember and want to talk about what he has seen later on.” Parent whose family attended a disability friendly opening

We held a focus group with parents, carers, siblings and teachers of children with special educational needs in June 2018 to discuss how museums can be more accessible for children with sensory sensitivities. Based on our consultation with this group we were able to plan a series of ‘disability friendly openings’ across the UCM, primarily aimed at children with autism and their families.   We consulted with parents and carers of children with additional needs to ensure the sessions would give the families the best possible experience & truly meet their needs.

The focus group was led by Sarah-Jane Harknett and myself. We took these points to base our ‘disability friendly openings’ structure on.

“Feels like we have to be quiet & serious, which isn’t always easy.”

We make sure to offer a very friendly, warm welcome to our families, we make it clear that the session is relaxed and they can explore at their own pace. We have a table set up with a variety of sensory toys that children can chose from to take around the museum with them. It’s fun for the children to choose a toy and starts the sessions in a relaxed, enjoyable way. Our regular attendees, have their favourite toys and love trying to find them on the table! We have duplicates of the most popular toys.

“Reduce sensory stimuli; lower lights, reduce noise”

We turn off any projectors and hand dryers for the sessions. We lower lighting as best we can and we provide a chill out space with bean bags, water and sensory toys.

“Staff with an understanding of different behaviours”

A lot of the feedback from the parents and carers was about feeling judged if their child has a meltdown. We commissioned charity Autism Anglia to deliver in house Autism Awareness training sessions and they then created a bespoke bitesize module that can be delivered to staff across the UCM. We ensure that all staff and volunteers working on the disability friendly openings undergo the bitesize module to get a basic overview and tips before the sessions.

“Having regular silent slots for people with autism. NB – people with autism may not be silent themselves but may be distressed by crowds and noise.”

We decided to hold the disability friendly openings at times when we can control the environment as best we can. We ‘ticket’ the sessions, making sure we don’t over book the event in order to keep the atmosphere as quiet and calm as possible.

“Gave us as a family the opportunity to follow my son’s interests without becoming frightened and over sensitised” – Parent whose family attended.

We have created visual stories for each museum that help families know what to expect, we email them out to the families before they attend the sessions. We had the local branch of the National Autistic Society check our first draft. We then got feedback from families before using the template to create visual stories for all of the UCM. We are now developing sensory maps for each site. You can view the visual stories on the main UCM website; here’s the Museum of Zoology story as an example.

“We were able to have a more relaxed , less stressful visit. Children both enjoyed looking around and asking questions” – Parent whose family attended.

We have delivered 9 disability friendly openings across 7 museums, with plans being developed for the eighth museum and the Botanic Garden. We have welcomed 130 children and 65 adults to the museums and helped them enjoy the UCM at their own pace.

” Great opportunity to experience everything the museum has to offer in an environment that suits us.” – Parent whose family attended.

We advertise the sessions roughly one month before the sessions using Eventbrite as a booking platform. We advertise them on social media and get specialist charities and groups to promote as well. We have noticed that word of mouth has been very important with the success of the disability friendly openings.  We have developed a mailing list, who get sent the booking link before we put it out on social media.

“Our boy had a chance to play with several key scientific objects/tools, which was extremely valuable. Great introduction to science. Thank you!” – Parent whose family attended.

Each session has the same elements; a chill out space, a craft activity, object handling table and a sensory story.

“The arts and craft session was fab – would be great to do more of this. Story telling & sensory experience is also great, please do more of this.” – Parent whose family attended.

“It was nice to be able to visit the museum in a quiet atmosphere, which made it possible for us fully engage with the exhibits. The sensory toys were a great initiative – lovely to be able to do hands on.” parent whose family attended.

We have had a fantastic reaction from all staff that have taken part in the sessions.

 “I am delighted that the Sedgwick had the opportunity to offer visiting families a disability -friendly opening.  It’s an important contribution to our family friendly ethos, and we really value the support that the UCM has been able to provide. All Sedgwick staff had participated in Autism Awareness training in advance of the opening, and Marie was on hand on the day to help and support us, meaning the whole team felt confident welcoming families with an autistic child or children.    We were also really pleased that Elliot, one of our volunteers who himself is on the autistic spectrum, was able to contribute as well.   We had some really outstanding feedback on the day, and since then staff have commented how they have been able to offer a better service to a wider range of visitors as a result.” Liz Hide, Director of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Jane Felstead, Visitor Services Manager at the Fitzwilliam Museum said,

“My staff get to interact with the parents and children attending and gain so much from doing this that they leave with a great sense of actually achieving something and making a difference to those attending.

One of my staff informed me later that she had wished that these kind of events had been available for her brother many years ago and I said I felt the same about my son. I remember the feeling unwelcome in places because of the looks and comments made by others just because your child is different, very special but different. If I can in such a small way make a difference to one child or one parent then the small amount of our time it takes is all worth it.

My staff gain a lot from the experience and they can carry this into every day they come to work to make sure that we are open and welcoming to all our visitors.”