I always find autism blogs hard to write because they mean so much more to me than anything else I write. This is the important stuff, this is making the world a better place for my daughter and I am always struggling to find the right words to make the most impact. When I heard back in July that the RAF Museum based at Hendon had won an Autism Access Award I was so excited, here was a museum shouting to the world that they support autistic visitors, and I hoped the museum world would sit up and take notice. I couldn’t wait to arrange a meeting with Ellen Lee, Education Officer at the museum to hear about the award, why they decided to go through the process, what changes they made and what the award means for the museum going forward.
I have been to the RAF Museum before with my Dad, it is a fantastic place. There is something about seeing such large museum objects that instantly engages the senses; a Eurofighter hanging from the ceiling, walking underneath the wings of a Vulcan bomber, sharing a coffee with a Chinook. It is a wonderful museum, on a large site, telling an important story of the RAF not just through its collections but through the stories of the individuals who have shaped the world of aviation.
It was wonderful to not only meet Ellen on my visit, but also her boss, David Keen, Access Development Manager at the museum. Straight away, before Ellen spoke, I could see that the award is something the team take seriously and not just a token gesture. I asked Ellen where she first heard about the award and she told me about a visit to the TES Special Needs Show in 2013 where she met Stephen Dedridge, Autism Accreditation Advisor from the National Autistic Society (NAS). The NAS have been working in accreditation for many years providing an autism specific quality assurance programme for organisations, such as NHS trusts, local authorities and education bodies.
The idea for the Autism Access Award is to use the experience the NAS have to help guide heritage sites and museums in making simple changes, and raising awareness with staff to provide a more supportive environment. It is not about single events but a museum wide approach to understanding autism. The museum is the first recipient of the Autism Access Award and undertook the pilot scheme for the NAS. The pilot ran from January to June 2014 and worked as a two-way process, the RAF museum helped the NAS tailor the scheme for museums, for example adding outreach to the criteria, a vital part of any inclusive museum.
Ellen kindly put me in touch with Robert Pritchett, Head of Accreditation at NAS, so I could find out more about the process. There is a four step pathway to achieving the award: step 1, self assessment; step 2, guidance from a NAS consultant who completes a benchmarking exercise and gap analysis that leads to an action plan; step 3, an audit is carried out with visitor feedback and information provided by the museum such as policies and procedures are looked at; step 4, an expert panel decides if the museum should receive the award.
Robert highlighted the main criteria for success –
Museums must set out clearly in their mission or statements of purpose that they recognise autism and will make reasonable adjustments to welcome people with autism
· Give good clear advance information on websites or leaflets that sets out details that a person with autism might want to know in advance, such as noisy and quiet times, the entrances and exits, contact details for the named autism champions, what special arrangements can be made, if there are quiet rooms or areas.
· Have sufficient front line staff trained appropriately for their roles. This can range from basic awareness for some, through to a more thorough understanding for champions. Champions should able to help plan how someone can access and use the facility.
· Collect feedback from, and/or maintain contact with people with autism through local groups, schools and listen and act on what they learn
The application costs £460 (for this financial year) and lasts for one year. This includes 1-2-1 support, a licence to use the online evaluation system, the annual audit and the NAS endorsement and use of branding for the museum. I asked Ellen if she felt it was worth the money, did the process tell her anything she didn’t already know? She was wholehearted in her response, it was well worth the money. It not only told them what they were doing well, but really highlighted areas that could be improved.
The museum tackled areas like signage, a structured route around the building and a quiet room. They now have excellent online resources for autistic visitors with a guide to the museum and an autism friendly aircraft trail. Ellen was thrilled to tell me that in August alone the trail had been downloaded 477 times, the statistic a confirmation of the need for this type of support. It was also interesting to hear of the ‘mystery shoppers’ who had visited the museum to really see how the autism support at the site worked in practice.
The main weak point that came out of the evaluation was staff training. Ellen is now working towards ‘Autism Champions’ in each department across the museum, not just the learning team but retail, security and volunteer managers. By meeting these training needs Ellen is steering the museum into sustainable change, the award is not just about ticking boxes and putting up a sign in the entrance, change needs to be universal and supported by the whole museum.
David reiterated Ellen’s comments, the process had been well worth the effort and cost. He felt quite simply that it is all about approaching this in the right way, it is not a challenge but an opportunity and I could feel the passion and commitment in his every word.
“No museum in the world has enough money but it should never be an excuse to prevent access to the collection. You wouldn’t turn off the lights to save money on the electricity bills, failing to support autistic visitors was not an option.”
What has really taken them by surprise was the reaction to the award, not only from the press and media, but ultimately the most rewarding has been the reaction of staff and volunteers who have really got on board with the whole initiative. It has raised the profile of the access and learning team within the museum, receiving the award has given the whole museum something to be proud of. Museums do change lives and not just those of visitors but staff too, making these changes can touch everyone and the benefits are universal.
I asked Ellen with all these positives, what was the hardest part of the process, she struggled to find an answer, which was encouraging! But ultimately I think finding the time to do the training has been tricky, giving informal training to staff and planning more training at their sister site at Cosford, makes these changes viable but also takes up time and resources. This is where I can see the unspoken reason why the RAF Museum have won this award and it is the support of management. The fact that Ellen’s boss has come to meet me too, he has praised her skills and efforts. It is a team that are working together, and it is their passion and commitment that shines through. David has made sure Ellen has the support she needs to make a difference and this support is too easily overlooked. Ellen is doing a fantastic job but David’s belief in her skills is amplifying their reach and making them have more impact.
The future looks very bright for the RAF Museum, they are looking forward to welcoming NAS for their family day and AGM in November. They have had contact from local autism groups and they are building vital links and relationships that will make understanding and welcoming autism a part of the fabric of the museum. From talking to David and Ellen I can see they are happy and willing to share their experience to pass on the baton so other museums can take it up and make a difference. Their advice?
1 – Small steps – don’t try to do everything at once.
2 – You learn as you go, you are not the expert. With school groups, take your lead from the teacher, for families work with the parents, autism affects individuals in such different ways you can’t generalise in the support you give.
3 – Often it is about providing the visitor with information so they can make their own choices – where the quiet areas are, which galleries have loud audio.
4 – It is not about changing the essence of the museum but making subtle small changes.
5 – The single most important change for them is working towards having ‘Autism Champions’ in the teams across the museum and spreading awareness.
6 – It has to be about the whole museum attitude, everyone has to work together.
It has been a real privilege to talk to Ellen and David, I guess I am emotional really. Their passion and their efforts to make a difference give me a lot of hope. This is not just about special events, although I understand they have their place, sometimes they work for families as much as they do for museums. But what I find refreshing is the whole museum approach. I liked how Ellen told me they worked with security in practical simple ways, on their daily checks they just make sure no one uses the quiet space as a dumping ground, an empty room is an awful temptation in overcrowded museums after all.
Working in this way makes the Autism Access Award not a final destination but a first step and I hope in the future it leads not only to access for autistic visitors but access for all, breaking down all the barriers. The RAF Museum is a special place, the collections belong to everyone but sometimes visitors just need a little bit more support to enjoy the collections and engage with the stories. As I have said before, being open to all is not always the same as being accessible to all.
I have spoken to different people in different museums working with autistic visitors and trying to make changes, achieving remarkable things and making a real difference to autistic individuals and their families. I have thought a lot on this after my talk with Ellen and David and I can’t say the Autism Access Award is the only route to making a difference. Sometimes one individual or one special event can have a remarkable impact, but for sustainable change that reaches every part of the museum I think this is certainly a viable route. It is certainly a path the RAF Museum have found to work for them and they have only been positive about the whole process.
I think the final story goes to Ellen who told me that just after they received the award she came across a family in the museum. They had three children, one of the children was autistic and having a meltdown, struggling to cope. The mother asked if there was a quiet place they could go. Ellen said the museum had a quiet room, she let the mother know she understood, she didn’t judge, she just helped. The look on that mother’s face, having someone able to help, not having to explain, made every thing worth it for Ellen, it made all the difference in the world to that one family.
The Autism Access Award for the RAF Museum is not just about a sign on the door and token gestures, it is ultimately about a museum making small but important changes to better meet the needs of their visitors. It is something every museum should be doing, it is not about money or time or staff, it is about intent, it is about attitude. It needs to happen now, not tomorrow or in the next financial year. David and Ellen are pioneers, in my eyes like the first aviators that adorn the galleries, making the first steps to a better future, pushing boundaries and making a difference in the world.
To find out more about the RAF Museum please visit their website – http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk
To find out more about the National Autistic Society Autism Access Award please visit their website – http://www.autism.org.uk/accessaward or ring 0117 974 8420
Museums Association Article on RAF museum winning the Autism Access Award – RAF Museum wins Autism Access Award