Being autistic in a museum

I’ve just been thinking a little about museums. I have been going to museums since I was very young, with school, not with school, and then for a few years I worked in various museums. My last museum visit was a couple of weeks ago, at Paisley Museum, which was very enjoyable.


A museum I know very well is the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Chambers Street in Edinburgh (as shown above). Whenever I visit, I have a strategy to combat sensory overload, which is to only visit certain bits in one go, limiting visits to about an hour. Too much visual stimulation makes my head go a bit funny and it’s why I tend to do one of two things. I either go outside into the world to clear my head or find a cafe and gulp down a great lump of sugar, which can tend to have the same effect. The latter tends to be what I do on days far from home when I might not be able to get there again for a while, as recently utilised in London (with a cake and a Coke) or Dublin or wherever. In Edinburgh or Glasgow, for example, I’ll just go back another day.

If I am near to reaching saturation point, I tend to have a seat for a few minutes, often to try and absorb what I have just seen. This is a particularly useful strategy in art galleries where there tend to be others seated for whatever reason, and I can blend in a bit more. If I could make one suggestion to museum and art gallery curators, it would be to provide more seats and designated quiet places. Not just for me, not just for other visitors on the spectrum, but for everyone. Such little changes benefit everyone, making the visitor experience more positive and helping folk like me keep the head, to use a good Scots expression.

One place I would praise is the National Railway Museum in York, a place I call ‘the most autistic place on earth’. I always feel like I am in the majority when I go there and the NRM have taken little steps to make the place more friendly, even listing quiet places on the leaflet you get as you go in. One of those is in the splendidly named Search Engine, the research and library service within the museum.

The one thing about NMS and my strategy when I visit is that there are areas I don’t go to all that often that I like but where I tend to lose the thread. One example is the basement of the ‘new’ bit, what used to be called the Museum of Scotland before they started doing up the ‘old’ or ‘Royal’ bit. It’s the bit about Scotland pre-1000AD, all about Picts, Romans, Gaels, Celts. This stuff fascinates me but the basement is quite dimly lit and there are lots of objects and words, making it quite hostile to me as a visitor. I tend to last about half an hour or else I lose all focus. What I tend to do in such situations is skim and skip ahead, looking at the objects but not so much at their accompanying captions, which keeps me on track for a bit.

I don’t tend to write about being autistic. It’s my normality whereas I am more interested in the world around me. Plus there are many others who do it better. But what has struck me is how many little strategies and reacharounds I have to be able to do something I enjoy. We all have our little ways, whether we are on the spectrum or not. These are just some of mine.

5 thoughts on “Being autistic in a museum

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