Sensory Summer

Since last fall, I have been engaged by the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM), to help facilitate the implementation of a generous 3 year grant it received to improve its services to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families. This has been a unique opportunity to bring together parents, self-advocates, providers and educators to engage with MCM staff in order to map out a strategy that will not only improve MCM’s services to this group of children and their families, but to provide a national model for other museums to improve their services.

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After my first meeting with MCM staff, I noticed this light on the main floor of the museum and it truly represents the vision of the incredible staff with whom I work on this project . Deb Gilpin, the Executive Director, has been very supportive of this truly unique project. The project lead, Sandra Bonnici, pours a tremendous amount of effort and passion in order to make sure this project succeeds. She considers it, “a great opportunity to truly understand community aspirations and challenges for people on the spectrum and their families and to collaborate with the ASD and SPD community improved experiences and genuine inclusion for these children and families both at MCM and within the museum field.”  Her very capable colleagues, Heather Davis, Kia Karlen and Anneke van Lith, have provided the support she needs to carry this project to fruition.

After getting substantial input from the Advisory Group, MCM staff realized that the museum needed to conduct an assessment of itself in order to determine both its strengths and weaknesses when serving children on the autism spectrum and their families. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the Advisory Group has resulted in a steady flow of participants eager to help with that assessment. University of Wisconsin Professor Karla Ausderau has recruited some of her students to help with this assessment, which will include gathering information from museums around the country to determine what they are doing in terms of serving children on the spectrum.

In additional to a professional assessment, Dr. Ausderau recommended that we use the museum itself as perhaps the most critical assessment tool. As a result, the museum is now engaged in planning a Sensory Summer. While the museum is still working out details and will get more input from the Advisory group, the basic idea is twofold:

  • Provide free passes to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families over the summer and request that they fill out on-line or paper surveys to let the museum know which parts of the museum work well for them and which do not. Of course, the museum will also seek information regarding suggested improvements which it could make to enhance the experience of these children and  their families; and
  • Schedule 4 sessions when the museum is normally closed (early weekday evenings and weekend mornings) to allow children on the spectrum and their families to enjoy the museum without the normal chaos of many other children participating in the many activities which the museum has to offer. During these sessions, the museum will create some quiet and sensory spaces and provide some assistive devices that may help some of these children enjoy the museum more. The museum will also engage well trained friendly observers to make note of what works and what does not work with the children who attend these sessions.

Before Sensory Summer begins, we will engage a planning committee composed of volunteers from our Advisory Group, and the museum will contract with an expert trainer to provide basic autism and sensory processing training to its entire staff.

In my nearly 25 years of disability advocacy experience, this is the deepest engagement I have seen a non-disability public entity voluntarily take on to better serve a generally underserved group of children and their families. This is truly systems change at its best. It is voluntary, enthusiastic and inclusive. I am truly honored to help the Madison Children’s Museum become a national (and perhaps international) model for how to best serve children with autism and other sensory processing disorders in a public museum setting.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.