Let’s be honest. Lockdown has been a ghastly time, particularly for autistic individuals who manage better with a routine, consistency, social interaction with individuals with whom they are familiar and can trust, and plenty of time and space to be outside. In trying to create this very environment for my eight-year-old autistic son Lumen, I planned as many days as possible for us to view art outdoors. We are avid artgoers, my two sons and I, and with most cultural institutions closed, outdoor sculptures and events, art trails, and exhibitions on facades of buildings became our solace.
My love of art is its ability to make us contemplate. It is a possibility, a recourse, a companion with an ability to effect change. I have strived to make Lumen aware that art will not fail him. If humans misunderstand him, judge him for his difference, disappoint him, if nature isn’t working its magic trick and he is searching for relief or consolation, he will always have art. He can have the conversation he wants, on his terms. Without anyone inflicting their expectations, least of all cultural institutions themselves.
During our outdoor art adventures, I quickly learnt that so much of our positive experiences pertained to more freedoms being allowed when compared to viewing art indoors. Lumen was more relaxed, likely because I was more relaxed. Indoor cultural institutions can learn from this, particularly with regard to welcoming autistic visitors. Below are some options they may consider, and while some are already made available for ‘autistic visitors sessions’, but they should be made available all the time.
Create something touchable
Some of the most visited, most acclaimed exhibitions are immersive and participatory. Think Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern, Carsten Höller at Hayward Gallery, and most recently Ann Veronica Janssens at South London Gallery. While we visited three separate shows during lockdown at the Breath Is Invisible project in Notting Hill, Lumen was able to touch the works on the façade of the building on which they were displayed. Same with Morag Myerscough’s installation in Grosvenor Square. We could walk through the structure and touch the bamboo. Indoor museums should consider creating a touchable work which is similar to some of the actual work and display it alongside. The work can be created with the least expensive materials – plaster, photocopies and colour copies, painted polystyrene, etc. – and can be a smaller prototype or model, possibly even produced in a workshop offered by the museum.
Provide ‘safe spaces’
In the outdoor areas we visited, alcoves in buildings, open spaces to run around, and quiet corners were aplenty. We visited Ai Weiwei’s public art project as part of CIRCA, in Piccadilly Circus one evening. While this area is busy with vehicles and pedestrians, we found an alcove to tuck ourselves into and see the work displayed on Europe’s largest billboard where we felt more comfortable and secure. When one indoor gallery allowed visitors, Lumen became overwhelmed with the relatively small space and amount of people, and we retreated to the garden also on site. Many cultural institutions have spaces within their respective premises that they can provide as ‘safe spaces’. They do not have to be sensory rooms, only spaces where other visitors are not allowed. Such spaces should be indicated on a map so individuals, parents, and carers know where they are ahead of time.
Educate all staff
Cultural inclusion needs to be understood institution-wide, from trustees, board members, and management to retail and restaurant staff, bag checkers and ticket collectors, and especially invigilators. Ideally, such understanding would come in the form of actually spending time with autistic individuals, whether at special schools, assisted living or care homes, or other community programmes. This would allow for the understanding and acceptance of common autistic behaviours, such as flapping, jumping, spinning, running, talking when everyone else is silent, wearing ear defenders, wearing no shoes, or experiencing sensory overload. Rather than unsettle the autistic individual or his/her parent or carer by making irrational demands, staff could serve to allow certain non-harmful and non-disruptive behaviours or offer to help should it be required.
Such education might also allow staff to make exceptions when autistic individuals are unable to follow set routes, which have become more common since lockdown. Or to queue separately for bag searches and exhibition entrances. I cannot tell you how many times we have missed an exhibition because Lumen could not cope with the wait required in such queues. On our outdoor art expeditions, there were zero queues.
The beautiful thing about advocacy is that it becomes a shared responsibility, and with education, advocates can grow exponentially. While we were finding works on the Mayfair Sculpture Trail, more than one passerby asked about Lumen’s bare feet (this happens frequently), and I always deem this an opportunity to talk to and try to educate strangers about autism and sensory processing disorder. One passerby saw Lumen with his ear defenders on and spinning and asked what he was listening to. I smiled and responded: ‘Himself’. I proceeded to inform her why he wore ear defenders and why he was spinning. She was very kind and asked a lot of additional questions. Imagine if Lumen was having a meltdown in a cultural institution, and rather than be comfortable with fellow visitors staring and scorning, an invigilator decided to inform fellow visitors that they are not being helpful and to allow him some space.
Provide social stories for every single exhibition
While Lumen does not follow social stories, prior to visiting any outdoor exhibitions, I showed him images available on websites of works we might see, along with images of other places or things he might recognise along the way or in close proximity, including parks and shops, taxis, buses, people walking on grass or on pavements, trees, dogs, etc. I showed him images of several works we would see in the Bold Tendencies show on the top floors of a multi-storey car park in Peckham. Cultural institutions often already have the layout of shows and images of works within marketing materials, including exhibition brochures. It would not be difficult for them to create a social story template and tailor it for each show, making sure to include toilets, safe spaces, and any outdoor accessible spaces on the map.
Allow more than a few hours once a month for autistic visitors
Most of the outdoor art we visited required no booking, and we could choose to go when Lumen was in the mood, and when I knew there would likely be less visitors. If we had trouble getting out the door (not uncommon with us), the usual added stress that we would miss our time slot was eliminated. I realise time slots are unavoidable with managing crowds and capacity, especially after lockdown, but it is not unfeasible to ask cultural institutions to offer more than one single relaxed morning per month for autistic visitors. They cannot imagine what this means to parents and carers of autistic children, providing an environment where fear of judgement from fellow visitors is removed and fear of invigilators and other staff thinking a child is misbehaving is removed. And the chances of a meltdown from sensory overload is essentially eliminated due to temporary sensory rooms being created, lights being dimmed, music turned off in gift shops and restaurants, and hand dryers in toilets turned off (this is an ongoing issue with us, and we learnt during our outdoor art visits that not a single disabled toilet we were able to use with our radar key – despite several being shut to the public during lockdown – had a hand dryer installed, preventing what is almost always an inevitable meltdown should a hand graze under it accidentally and turn it on).
Provide ear defenders at reception and exhibition entries
Lumen has his own ear defenders, and we never leave home without them. In fact, I bring replacement parts with us on longer outdoor adventures in the event there is loud construction work nearby – a main trigger for him - and he takes his off and throws them on the pavement or bites a chunk out of them. They served their purpose during our lockdown art jaunts, and I think they would prove effective if cultural institutions offered them. There are ‘disposable’ ear defenders for under £5 (not the type to be inserted into ears, which Lumen and several autistic children we know will not tolerate). And museums, galleries, cultural and historical centres, libraries, archives, and other institutions have a branding and loyalty opportunity should they decide to slap their logo on the ear defenders and encourage these same visitors to bring them with them next time they visit. My son and I would much more inclined to visit a museum that went this extra step and made us feel like we were a priority and welcome at any time.
Provide ‘mask-exempt’ stickers or badges
Lumen could not tolerate wearing a mask, as the majority of children at his school also could not, due to both a lack of understanding and sensory issues. Luckily, we were not required to wear one at any of the outdoor art venues. Depending upon the government’s rules of mask wearing in future, it would be helpful for cultural centres to take a page from Transport for London’s book and offer in the form of a sticker or badge a message to others that a person is exempt from wearing a mask. While some visitors may not choose this option, others may feel more comfortable communicating in the form of a sticker or badge that it is not that they do not want to follow rules, it is that they are exempt.
With the arts and culture sector contributing £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation to the UK economy, the sector, along with policy and decision makers need to make inclusion a top priority. Current inclusion policies are not working, and lockdown has only served to highlight this even more. Visiting outdoor art has given us tremendous insights, and indoor cultural institutions should be open to considering changes to reflect these insights. The day Lumen can walk into Tate Modern or the Royal Academy, with bare feet and ear defenders, and spin in front of a Gerhard Richter or flap in front of a Joshua Reynolds, while an invigilator tells a fellow visitor who is staring at us, ‘Oh, he’s a huge art fan who’s telling us he loves these works,’ is the day I’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.
Lisha Aquino Rooney
Lisha is an artist and autistic rights advocate, particularly within the arts realm. She is CEO of WhatDo, a clothing company celebrating autistic individuals and neurodiversity. Lisha is ambassador for Flute Theatre, a theatre company which performs the works of Shakespeare to audiences primarily composed of people who could not ordinarily access the performing arts, including autistic individuals and their families. Lisha is also a governor at Queensmill School, a school for autistic children rated Outstanding in all aspects by Ofsted.