Manchester Art Gallery

Open doors: our autism friendly session

In March 2016, Sarah Marsh from our Family Learning team, spoke at an autism awareness seminar in association with GEM North West at Manchester Museum.

In June 2014 we opened our doors early, to children with autism and other communication issues, their parents/carers and their siblings.

This was the beginning of a sensory-based, creative project that has since been running on a monthly basis.

Members of the Family Learning team and gallery staff had initial training from Lorna Downey, Nadia Peters and the National Autistic Society, and we continue communications with both Nadia and Lorna to discuss any questions that arise through the project.

We called the session ‘Open doors’, as we were literally doing this with the doors of the building, (a sneak peek before the rest of the general public could enter). But also, the intention was to, open the doors on our regular Family Learning programme to this specific group, to show that our creative workshops and learning ethos is inclusive of everyone.

Our aim for Open doors, was to instill confidence, familiarity and care. To show that we were, and are, dedicated to being autism friendly within our Family Learning team and across the gallery.

Open doors runs from 9.15 – 10.45am every third Saturday of the month and is for ages 5 – 16. Each session is inspired by a particular artwork or exhibition; this is where the families start their journey. The main body of the session takes place in the Clore Art Studio, this is an area of the gallery where everything can be touched, moved and interacted with. By opening 45 minutes earlier we are able to experience the gallery with all of our senses:

• The echo-y galleries can be explored by voice, you can be as loud as you want.
• Shoes can be taken off, so that feet as well as hands can feel the plethora of textures, temperatures and vibrations of the floors and spaces of the galleries.
• Stairs can be climbed up and down as many times as needed.
• We can shout, tap, bang, hug, squeeze, dance and laugh.
• We can also be as quiet as we want. And Open doors allows us to have the space and freedom to do this.

Prompts and provocations

In line with our learning philosophy, Open doors has always been an experimental journey. Through the sessions we ask questions, be playful and creative and explore new ideas. The sessions are open-ended, with prompts and provocations to support our exploration of the space, artwork and gallery. These prompts are tailored to meet the needs of varying learning abilities and are meant to be used by both the child and the adult, together, but sometimes separately.

Some ideas have worked better than others, but all of the ideas have developed and informed the project as a whole.

As mentioned earlier, the journey starts in front of an artwork, or within an exhibition. A theme is selected, such as; Movement in front of a Turner, Pattern in a Matthew Darbyshire installation, Line in front of a Hepworth sculpture or Nature in the Pre-Raphaelite gallery.

Objects, fabrics or paper strips may be used within this space to support any conversation or to develop a sensory-led language of understanding. There is no right or wrong way in how this is interpreted and the interaction can last for as long or as short as desired.

A text-based handout always accompanies the session and is used by the adult or older child. There are visual handouts available in the Clore Art Studio that can be used by any age.

To discourage artworks being touched we use simple visuals (known as PEP cards). We take time at the beginning of the sessions to look at the images together and encourage the children to tell us what they mean;

a hand with a red line through it, an eye, to encourage looking, and most recently, a smiling, running stick man with a red cross through his running feet.

This was suggested by a mother of a child who regularly attends the sessions. Feedback and comments from our families is encouraged and welcomed and gives the families of Open doors a sense of ownership and pride.

We’ve started to use these simple visuals in the galleries during our regular Family holiday workshops, mainly because they work but also because; since Open doors started there has been an increase of families with children with autism, accessing our regular holiday activities.

Another feature of Open doors, that is now a permanent addition to our holiday programme is the Quiet Room. Initially, I perceived this space to be used by children who were feeling a sense of stress or needed time out. What I’ve discovered is that some of our participants have so much energy and enthusiasm that this space gives them time to relax, have a sandwich and catch their breath before coming back into the session with obvious pleasure and excitement.

The artist

Open doors is run by me; Sarah Marsh. I’m a Freelance Artist, Gallery Educator and Consultant and have been overseeing the Family Learning programme at MAG for the past 18 months, along with my colleague, Jessica Wild. The Open doors project is driving the Family Learning programme forward in exciting ways, most notably within our Clore Art Studio.

The Clore Art Studio

This is a space in the heart of the gallery, dedicated to Family Learning.

In 2013, we made the decision to move away from the fixed, push-button interactivity, and to focus attention on creating an environment that was open-ended, playful, immersive and supported creative learning.

In 2014, The Clore Art Studio was redesigned by me and Jessica Wild, as practicing artists with complimentary disciplines and as Freelance Artists overseeing the Family Learning programme. The redesign of the Clore has become embedded in our own creative practices and its legacy continues to develop and grow. We recently opened the doors to its newest redesign; Transformations. We’re inviting families to explore all the different ways you can transform yourself in the space.

Both Jess and I see the Clore Art Studio as an ongoing project. As artists we draw on our personal experiences to inspire new ideas and dynamic ways of working, this keeps it interesting for us and innovating for the families, students and adults that engage with it.

Over the last 18 months, the interactions, explorations and notions of play that take place in Open doors has inspired the choice of materials, fabrications and ideas that we select for the space.

These include; lighting, fabrics, mirrors, pattern, shape and texture.

We are in the process of researching additional sensory inspired ideas for the end of May.

Moving forward

The next step for Open doors is to share what we are doing, in events like this (GEM North West), blogs and seminars.

Social media is the quickest way of getting our message out there, and by branding the Clore Art Studio with #MAGFamilies, images can be uploaded by families to be shared on our ever-growing on-line gallery.

Through talks with parents in sessions, opportunities have arisen, such as going on Salford City Radio to talk about the work we do and in turn, potentially inviting new families to join us.

Open doors has provided exciting volunteering opportunities and has been used by a number of students as a research tool in their thesis and dissertations.

One researcher interviewed parents of children who had attended Open doors over a 6 month period. These are some of the things that have been noted by the parents;

I have a better understanding of my child’s eye movement. Her eye contact has become more obvious. When she goes to look at something, it is quite obvious where she’s looking and what she’s looking at.

We have noticed that our child’s behaviour changes after Open doors; they are is a lot calmer and more focussed when we’re back home.

Open doors allows families who may not access the gallery at other times to enjoy the space and to feel comfortable.

The art gallery has become a familiar place for my child.

Come and see

If you want to come and see what we are doing, please visit us.

The next Open doors is Saturday 16 April.



3 responses to “Open doors: our autism friendly session”

  1. Louise Anderson says:

    Your Project sounds so innovative and wonderful to see young people with Autism being actively encouraged to appreciate the arts.

    I am a speech and language therapist working in Stockport and reading about your project made me think what amazing opportunities you are offering for children with autism to communicate and express themselves.

    I am really looking forward to visiting your work and quite surprised that our service hasn’t heard of you- I’ m sure health care workers would be so keen to promote your work.

    Very Best Wishes, Louise Anderson

  2. Vanessa Hall says:

    Is your Open Doors Autism Friendly session still on the third Saturday of every month ?

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