Making the most of a museum visit with an extraordinary child

A recent article in the New York Times gave travelers tips for getting the most out of famous museums such as the Louvre. World heritage sites tend to be crowded, large and overwhelming so the writer advised "plan ahead". 

This wisdom pertains to visitors with disabilities too. In fact, a British study on the state of museum access show that 85 percent of people with a disability check the museum's website for information about accessibility, accommodations, and specific programming designed for them. If there is no mention, they won't go. Families with children, especially with an intellectual and developmental disability say they do not feel welcome. 

Despite this, and the fact that French museums are just starting to catch up in making culture accessible to all, I encourage parents to visit museums regularly with their children. They can be a great place to explore particular areas of interest. Museums require little social engagement, they provide opportunities for visual and hands-on learning, and are predictably the same from visit to visit. French museums are free for people with an MDPH card and one accompanying person and visitors may spend as much or as little time as they choose once admitted entry. This has been ideal for my family, as we never know how long our son will want to stay. We often start with short visits more frequently at first. Museums are also a place where people with disabilities can enjoy being members of the larger community. 

Cultural venues provide alternatives to different learning styles. Museums educators strive to use universal design principles. Unlike school curriculum which favor verbal/social intelligence, exhibits appeal to visual/spatial/kinesthetic/natural intelligence. That make them better geared to the strengths of people with learning differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, cognitive disabilities, anxiety, and so forth. 

The important thing to remember is to make it all about what interests THEM. Choose a museum you think your family members will enjoy. Do they like knowing how things work? Go to Arts et Métiers! Do they like music? Go to the Philharmonie de Paris.

Use the website to prepare by watching "teaser" videos and for visual info that will be helpful (photos, maps, hours...).

Make a social story to learn the rules the rules and read it with your child. Is there a rule about not eating or drinking? Practice no touch rules and role play appropriate distance from art. Explain that there will be opportunities for touching interactive displays or replicas.

Use the app "affluences" to choose an uncrowded time to visit (usually weekdays or Sunday mornings) and to know how long the wait in line is to go through security. Most French museums have priority access for people with disabilities.

If you know what your family member is likely to enjoy, go to that exhibit first. Make a visual schedule together beforehand but be flexible with your time. For example, be ok with staying for a short time or spending a long time around a favorite display. 

Our son loves going to the museum café after a visit. Check the menu or see if there is a place to eat if you bring your own food. Some of our favorite museums are Quai Branly, Petite Gallery and Pavillon de L'Horloge at the Louvre, Cité de La Musique and Palais de la Découverte. 

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and explore!

Thais is an access and inclusion consultant and trainer to many French cultural venues. Read about her "adventures" navigating French museums with her adult son on the spectrum at Frog & TED