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Social Stories Spectrum Project Grant Awarded to theNAT

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” —Dr. Stephen M. Shore

The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) is collaborating with several museums in Balboa Park on a groundbreaking new project that brings together high-functioning verbal young adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to create “social stories” that help them—and others on the spectrum—make a visit to a museum more comfortable/successful. 

A social story is a written and/or visual access tool to help individuals with ASD understand the various social interactions, situations, behaviors, skills, or concepts they can expect to encounter in a public setting (Gray and Garand, 1993). In a museum, social stories are used to help individuals with ASD and their families plan and set expectations for a visit. This can be anything from areas within a museum that are louder, a dark 3D movie experience, what can be touched or what cannot be touched, or engagement opportunities with museum docents or staff.

This project is unique in that the social stories will be developed by the young adults themselves as part of a year-long project that is being funded in part through a grant titled SPECTRUM from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America Community Anchors program. The grant was awarded to theNAT in September 2016. The social stories these individuals create will be posted on the websites of the participating institutions so they can be used as tools for future visitors.

The development of the social story component of this project will act as a template for other museums in that they’ll provide a range of elements within an institution that should be considered and communicated when developing their own social story for visitors with ASD.

What does the project look like, and who will participate?
The seven participating museums include theNAT, Fleet Science Center, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego History Center, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Man, and Japanese Friendship Garden.

Program participants include high-functioning verbal young adults (ages 18-25) with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Museum staff and program participants will meet every three weeks in the Park and work together in a structured setting to develop both written and video-based social stories for each of the seven diverse museums. They’ll also develop one social story for the museum area of Balboa Park. This project gives the young adults an opportunity to meet up with their peers and practice social skills together as well as participate in organized trips to the participating museums.

Why museums?

Museums provide opportunities for individuals, families, and groups to spend quality time together in an interactive environment that aims to foster a sense of community and enjoyment. However, many museums, in their quest to provide the environment described above, have become loud, crowded public spaces that can be difficult to navigate and over-stimulating for individuals with autism. Though policies on inclusive practices for individuals with autism have resulted in the development of successful practices and advances in formal education and early childhood settings, museums have been slow to provide approaches for supporting those with autism.

What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. People with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. These symptoms fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms, including the inability to communicate verbally at all.

Why did you choose to work with young adults with ASD?

Given that the Social Stories Spectrum Project does not exist elsewhere and we are innovating it from the ground up, the Museum’s intention is to invite the beneficiaries of the project—adults with ASD—to serve as partners and co-creators in the development of these social stories. Our hope is that this project will exemplify the museum field’s effort to share authority with a special segment of the public that historically has been overlooked.

Is the rate of autism on the rise?

Though museums work to design inclusive environments that reflect universal design parameters, the field is unprepared to accommodate the growing number of adults with ASD. About 1 in 68 children have been identified with ASD, according to estimates from CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network (J. Baio, 2014). Given that the prevalence of autism has increased ten-fold during the past decade, the number of children with autism who will become adults over the next few years is huge (Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, 2014). In June 2015, US News and World Report reported that more than 50,000 individuals with autism transition into adulthood each year (Khan, 2015).

By compiling data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in regards to the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders from 1975 – 2014, this increase becomes very apparent. Today’s 21 year olds were born in 1995, at the edge of a dramatic increase in individuals with ASD.


If I know a high-functioning young adult with ASD who might be interested in this project, who do they contact?

We will be posting a link to the application project web page on November 11, 2017. Submission deadline and details will be posted at that time.

How will you share the project results with the museum community?

We will be sharing monthly postings about the project on the project web page. Project and evaluation results will also be also disseminated through conference presentations, peer-reviewed journals,, and theNAT’s own website and social media channels as well as those of participating Balboa Park museums.

Posted by Beth Redmond-Jones.

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