The goal of this project was to access and share insights about the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) experience that emerged during our fieldwork with people on the autism spectrum and their support persons. To understand the experience of people with autism at the Museum, we observed five people with autism over two days onsite, four school children in grade six and one 35-year old man who used a wheelchair and had communication challenges. We also interviewed the man with autism and support persons including three teaching staff and a caregiver. We analyzed our interview and observation notes through a manual thematic analysis to formulate key findings and suggestions. These recommendations could be used by the Museum as it looks forward to improving the experience for people with autism.
Our research consisted of two major phases: Collaboration and Background Research; and Observations and Interviews with People with Autism and Their Support Persons.
Our first step was to expand our understanding in the field of creating accommodation for people with autism. To do this, we consulted with collaborators who helped us challenge our assumptions and consider different aspects of accessibility, explored the CSTM’s website and spoke with CSTM staff to determine what accessibility features are already in place, and considered relevant literature.
Our list of collaborators included: CSTM Staff who gave us a comprehensive tour of the site, including an overview of existing accessibility features, programming, and insights into areas that are still under development. A parent of a child with autism who advised us on the nature of the questions we planned to ask Museum visitors with autism and their support persons. A counsellor for people with autism, who is also the coordinator of a transition support centre for people with autism at a post-secondary institution, who advised us on accessibility solutions used at the transition support Centre. A recreation therapist from a Children’s Treatment Centre who discussed direct experiences of accessibility issues that children with autism face.
To understand the experience of people with autism at the CSTM, we observed five people with autism over two days onsite: four school children and one adult man. After the observation, we conducted interviews with three teaching staff, the man, and his caregiver. We were unable to interview the children because they had communication challenges, which prevented them from describing their experience in detail.
We identified recurring themes from the manual thematic coding of the interview transcripts and observation notes. Overall, 47 codes emerged from the interview transcripts, and these were further grouped into six categories. 58 codes emerged from the observation notes and these were again grouped into six categories. We used the number of instances, and number of people in whose interview or observation they occurred, to identify the categories that stood out. This helped us identify the aspects of the Museum that worked well, the aspects that were acceptable but could be improved, and the aspects that were critical and needed attention. While we needed to be cautious to avoid drawing strong conclusions from our small sample size, we could syncretize across our academic, professional, personal, and lived experience resources, to formulate the findings discussed below.
We coded the interview transcripts to identify recurring themes. Overwhelmingly, Resources was the most prevalent category. Participants commonly reported resources that work for them at other community spaces, and gave suggestions for improving resources at the Museum. Commonly desired resources were: low sensory spaces, clearer signage, preparation materials on the website, and transportation assistance.
Visitors liked a variety of aspects, but overall preferred aspects that were the most engaging to them.
Participants referenced overstimulation and suggested that there be low sensory days or hours. They commented on general busyness through the number of other visitors.
We noted a need for a variety of developmental levels to be offered in each of the exhibits.
The CSTM is a highly accessible Museum, so it was no surprise that physical accessibility was the least prevalent category. Still, there were some instances when a participant who uses a wheelchair could not access exhibits.
63 codes emerged out of the interview transcripts. These were clustered into 6 themes using affinity digramming.
Observation results mirrored much of the results from the interviews. The overlapping categories with the interviews were Likes, Other visitors, and Physical accessibility. The category that stood out the most in the observation was Engagement, a category that encompassed any engaged interaction with a specific exhibit by our Museum visitors. The prevalence of this category and the Likes category reflects positively on the experience provided by the current exhibits at the Museum. While the support person was a code under the category of Resources in the interviews, they were more prominent in the observations, emphasizing that providing resources for support persons could be an important measure.
Similar to the interviews, exhibit effectiveness stood out in the observations. Likes was a prevalent category in both the interviews and observations, greatly outweighing the prevalence of the Dislikes category. A common trend was that participants enjoyed exhibits
58 codes emerged out of the observation notes. These were clustered into 6 themes using affinity digramming.
In addition to the very positive feedback, some common themes that emerged throughout the interviews and observations provided us with insight that led to the following suggestions to improve the Museum’s accessibility for people with autism.
The number one indicator for an exhibit being liked was that it was interactive. To ensure that the exhibits are engaging to all audiences, it would be beneficial if there were an inclusion of interactive features at a variety of developmental levels in all exhibits.
Incorporating more low-sensory spaces throughout the Museum: We accessed the low sensory classroom for our participants by request. While other visitors can request it as well, not everyone interviewed realized such room was available. The support persons told us that quiet spaces throughout the Museum would be helpful since the Museum is large and there is no way to get to the classroom space without walking through many high sensory exhibits.
Providing sensory processing tools, such as weighted blankets, noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, communication headphones so that individuals can be addressed directly, or shaded glasses could be provided for visitors to borrow.
Informing visitors of high-traffic times. A note on the website, or reminders on social media could inform visitors about busy mornings during the week due to school visits.
Participants often commented on the confusing layout of the Museum. To improve this, the Museum is currently working on sensory maps and are planning more work on the Museum’s wayfinding system. In addition, we suggest: Developmentally appropriate maps, paired with better signage throughout. Ideally, the signage would be able to be followed tactually and visually. Signage that includes information about the sensory characteristics of each area to aid people in choosing exhibits that work best for them. Information about exhibits that would enhance the pre-planning of visits, through the website and Wayfinding apps.
This project was completed in a team of four between students at Carleton and Queens University as a part of the The Research and Education in Accessibility, Design, and Innovation (READi) program.