Autism, Awareness and Access for All: Making Historic Homes and Collections Accessible

Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland
Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

Elena Trimarchi is the Learning Officer at Culzean Castle and Country Park, part of the National Trust for Scotland. She will be co-presenting a breakout session at the MGS Conference.

Having worked at Culzean Castle and Country Park for two years, I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of audiences. My work with visitors on the autism spectrum started when I took part in a Makaton course in 2015. Makaton is a language aid which uses symbols and signs to aid communication. Makaton is often used with children and adults on the autism spectrum, as mainstream communication can be challenging, and it is possible that visual communication works better for them.

Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland
Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

When I first started I had limited knowledge about Makaton, autism and what would come out of the Makaton training course. I felt inspired by the training and was keen to find out more. Having attended other training in Manchester through the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) around accessibility for audiences on the autism spectrum, I had the opportunity to meet other professionals who were working with this particular audience.

Encouraged by my colleagues from around the UK, I set out to include more autism-friendly programming into the learning provision at Culzean. I helped to organise the first Autism Awareness Day, having also been inspired by Riverside’s in 2012, when I worked there as a Gallery Assistant. Keeping it simple was the key to its success. Working as a learning professional it would be impossible to be an expert in all audiences and all learning styles, however there are themes that tie many of them together. At this stage of the process my main aims were to provide a fun and engaging activity for families, taking into account particular requirements and marketing it to a specific audience. The ethos around the Autism Awareness Days in 2016 and 2017 was to give families whose member/s are on the autism spectrum an opportunity to engage with the heritage of Culzean and to have a fun, stress-free day out.

Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland
Image: courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

We all know that there are competing priorities within museums/galleries/cultural sites and it can be difficult to know where to start off with a new project, especially when targeting a new audience. My advice would be to ask for help. I will be forever grateful to the wonderful colleagues I have met (and emailed and tweeted) along the way and who have shared their experiences and knowledge about providing opportunities for audiences on the autism spectrum. From Visual Stories to sensory backpacks, there will be someone out there who’s done it before and, most likely, will be happy to share what they have learned along the way.

Museum Galleries Scotland’s 2017 Conference Inequalities: Bridging the Gap is all about tackling the inequalities within the heritage and museums sector and how our work reflects the needs of our audiences (both existing and non). There will undoubtedly be interesting discussion around inclusion vs integration of visitors on the autism spectrum; whether the ‘autism’ label defines or enables individuals and how museums can become more autism friendly for visitors, but also how they can be a platform to ensure that cultural opportunities are available and meaningful for everyone.

Elena Trimarchi, Learning Officer, Culzean Castle and Country Park, National Trust for Scotland


Elena will be presenting at our conference Inequalities: Bridging the Gap. She’ll be hosting breakout session B4 alongside Hannah Teasdale (also from National Trust for Scotland).

Delegate tickets for the conference are available here until Wednesday 4 October.

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