Scaffolding: Building a Framework for Museum Visits

When you think about going to visit a museum, chances are, you just do it without any additional thoughts. But for the young adults with autism with whom we are working, we needed to break down the museum visit to give some structure to the activity, as well as some structure for the forthcoming social story.

So, how did we go about this? “Much of contemporary learning theory rests on the idea of ‘instructional scaffolding,’ by which educators or educational material provides supportive resources, tasks, and guidance upon which learners can build their confidence and abilities,” writes Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum. For theNAT team, this was a critical point. It was important that each young adult have an easy framework or tool to document both the easy and challenging aspects of the visit for them (bright lights, loud sounds, couldn’t find the bathroom, didn’t like talking with floor staff, loved the squishy couch, etc.). But we also felt it was critical that each individual have a voice, as each of them is uniquely different and their autism manifests in different ways. If you have ever heard the phrase “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” this become readily apparent in our group.

The structure we developed—knowing very well we may need to refine as we went along—was based on four parts of a museum visit.

1. Before the Visit
2. Arriving at the Museum
3. Moving Around the Museum
4. Leaving the Museum

As we introduced this framework, or scaffolding, to the young adults, we asked them to help us brainstorm things to think about, or activities they may do during each of these four steps (see photos below for what they identified). As we went through this brainstorming process, one part at a time, some young adults added to previous parts already defined in addition to the part that was being discussed.

With this framework fresh in everyone’s minds, the group headed to the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) to give the framework a try. We met up with project partner Kevin Linde of MOPA who welcomed the group and invited them all in. We asked the young adults to lead the way, then go their separate ways and that theNAT team and Kevin would be available for questions as needed.

As the young adults walked in, they stopped, not knowing where to go. Each of the young adults was given an Explorer Pass  by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership for their museum visits, but it was unclear to the young adults as to where to scan it. After asking Kevin questions, they learned it was a two-step process at MOPA:1) scan your pass across from the admission desk, and 2) after scanning, go to the admission desk to get your sticker showing you paid. Needless to say, lot of notes were being written down about this process. The visit unfolded with many notes being taken about light levels, quiet and loud areas, the gift shop, and places to sit.

After completing the visit to MOPA, Kevin returned with the group back to our meeting room to debrief about the visit. This proved very interesting for all involved, as some things that were challenging for some, were not for others, and vice versa. Kevin answered questions and provided clarifications which were helpful for many of the young adults. TheNAT staff provided probing questions here and there to be sure that all aspects of the visit were covered.

At the next meetup three weeks later, the group revisited the four parts of a museum visit, then headed off to the Fleet Science Center  for another museum visit utilizing the same framework. Here, the group met up with project partner, Mary French of the Fleet, who again welcomed the group and answered any immediate questions which included “are cell phones allowed?” and “are we wearing appropriate clothing to go into your museum?” As the young adults entered, we realized that entry and going through admissions was very different than at MOPA and required some coaching on our staff’s part. During the visit, there was some writing of visit observations, but also a lot of playing with interactives which was fun. Upon our return to theNAT with Mary, the group debriefed about their visit to the Fleet. It was interesting to see some of the young adults move out of their own experience at the museum, and be able to relate it to others who may have autism. This ability to have empathy is not always apparent in those with autism.

At the next two meetups, the young adults will begin to build their social stories for MOPA and the Fleet. TheNAT team is working on yet another framework in which to structure the social stories …more on that in the next blog post.  

These are the items to consider or tasks to do, which the young adults identified to think about and to try to identify during the stages Before the Visit and Arriving at the Museum.

These are the items to consider or tasks to do which the young adults identified to think about and to try to identify during the stages Moving Around the Museum and Leaving the Museum.

Young adults navigate the two-part entry at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA).

Moving around MOPA and documenting items on the framework.

Enjoying some downtime and a chat in the quiet area of MOPA.

Enjoying some time to shop at the MOPA store.

A few final quick notes and conversation before leaving MOPA and heading back to theNAT.

Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly reviews the four phases of a museum visit with the young adults prior to going the Fleet Science Center.

At the Fleet Science Center, the young adults work on life skills, interfacing with front line staff, and scanning their Explorer Pass.

Project Director Beth Redmond-Jones (left) and one of the young adults engage with Ned Kahn’s Tornado exhibit at the Fleet.

A moment of rest for one of the young adults as he discusses challenging aspects of the main gallery with Project Director Beth Redmond-Jones.

One of the young adults tries to successfully build an arch with occupational therapist Bobbi Hanna.

Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly documents the young adults’ observations and challenges from their visit to the Fleet.


Posted By Beth Redmond-Jones.

Subscribe to our blog. Receive an email once a week that recaps the latest blog posts about our research, exhibitions, cool science news, and more