Welcoming Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders at Connecticut’s Mattatuck Museum

Students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) receive a warm welcome at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, where staff members are trained in leading tours and classes tailored for this population. In their VSA Museum Access for Kids Program contract, the museum is offering programming to K-12 students with a variety of developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities; they are currently welcoming groups of students with ASD in particular, and expect to serve over 500 students with disabilities in the 2015-2016 school year.

A female museum educator talks to students in front of a painting of a woman in a white dress.

Students participate in an interactive tour at the Mattatuck Museum.

Director of Education Stephanie Coakley says they base their interactive approach to working with students with ASD on the Visual Thinking Strategies method, or VTS. When students arrive at the building, they are broken into groups of 13 students or less each, plus chaperones and parents. Trained museum educators lead the students through the museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, focusing on elements of art and principles of design.

Coakley says the framework for their tours is very inquiry-based and conversational, with leaders asking opened-ended questions and responding to comments and observations as they come up. “Our museum educators are trained to adapt quickly on their feet and be flexible at all times,” says Coakley, continuing, “They are more than lecturers, but facilitators and moderators to these mini-discussions that happen based on what the children see and feel.”

One way the Mattatuck Museum staff tailors their programs to groups of students with ASD is by adding a white board at the building entrance with a detailed schedule of the group’s visit. This allows the museum educators to welcome students to the building while also providing visual information about what to expect during their time there.

Three students stand in front of a colorful mixed media painting.

Students participate in an interactive tour at the Mattatuck Museum.

In the galleries themselves, museum educators incorporate colored circle and square mats as a means to help students with ASD focus in front of a work or object. Coakley says these are particularly helpful for younger students, ages 3-8. They also have educational bins in each gallery with lots of hands-on supplementary materials to support discussion and enhance the learning experience. For instance, when talking about printmaking, museum educators might share a silkscreen, tube of acrylic paint, or color wheel with the students.

When the programs for students with ASD include art-making activities, Coakley says they incorporate tactile and multi-sensory elements into the process—things students can hold and feel to help them focus or redirect their focus. The Mattatuck Museum also offers an area of the building as quiet space for those who may need it.

To those who are considering developing their own art education programming for students with ASD, Coakley recommends developing an informal advisory group, to include parents, students, school educators, and organizational leaders. She says talking to community members who have a strong interest in art education for students with ASD and other disabilities has been important and helpful in the development of the Mattatuck Museum’s successful program.

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