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Neurodivergent Needs: A Q&A with ADDitude Magazine

Category: Alliance Blog
A pair of over-ear headphones hanging on a rack.
A long-running neurodiversity magazine polled their readers about how museums were meeting their needs. Here's what they learned. Photo credit: CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.

If museums want to be welcoming and accessible, one of the areas they must consider is neurodiversity. How do the ways we process information and stimuli differ from person to person, and how can we design experiences that work across this range? This issue can make a big impact on visitor experience, with an estimated one in six children diagnosed with a developmental disability, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and 12.8 percent of adults experiencing a cognition disability.

Last spring, my interest in this topic led me to connect with Anni Rodgers and Carole Fleck of ADDitude, a magazine in its twenty-sixth year that focuses on ADD and ADHD and other neurodiversity topics for adults, children, teens, and families. After our conversation, they decided to survey their subscribers to learn whether they felt museums were serving audiences with ADD and ADHD well or not, eventually publishing the findings in their fall issue last year. The following Q&A includes excerpts from their survey, along with their recommendations for museums and cultural organizations to serve neurodivergent audiences better.

Adam Rozan: To start, can you please introduce yourselves and ADDitude magazine?

Anni Rodgers: Thank you. It is a great honor and responsibility to usher ADDitude into its twenty-sixth year. My name is Anni Rodgers, and I am the General Manager of ADDitude. I first joined the ADDitude team back in 2006, and I’m amazed by how much we’ve learned about ADHD and neurodiversity, more broadly, since then.

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Carole Fleck: I’m Carole Fleck, Editor-in-Chief at ADDitude magazine, and I’m amazed at how our readers have such trust in ADDitude and in our ability to help them that they share their most pressing problems with us.

AR: How do you describe neurodiversity, and are neurodivergent audiences only those individuals with ADD and ADHD?

Rodgers: Neurodivergent individuals may be visual thinkers or tactile learners; they may have autism or dyscalculia, or they may have ADHD or dyslexia. The diagnosis does not matter; many neurodivergent thinkers may not even have one. Neurodiversity is not associated in any way with IQ or potential for success. Neurodivergent individuals only sometimes learn best in a traditional classroom setting where information is shared through book-reading and auditory lectures.

ADDitude recently interviewed autism advocate and animal systems engineer Temple Grandin about her neurodiversity and how her visual-spatial mind sees connections and solutions that neurotypical minds do not. She credits her thinking style with her success. She cautions that an education system designed to accommodate only one type of learning discourages and devalues the minds that may be best suited to solve our nation’s infrastructure and transportation problems, for example. In her writings, Dr. Grandin points to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—a visual design thinker and an engineering systems thinker—as neurodivergent thinkers who revolutionized their industry by breaking its rules and devising better solutions to consumers’ problems.

AR: Let’s discuss the survey featured in ADDitude’s Fall 2023 issue, how it was conducted, and what you learned.

Rodgers: We fielded the survey in June 2023 to ADDitude readers, 199 of whom answered our questions. We learned that 89 percent of respondents said they enjoy visiting museums and cultural spaces, especially those with interactive, hands-on experiences, outdoor exhibits, and self-guided tours. However, half of the respondents also said they generally don’t feel their neurodivergent needs are met at museums and cultural spaces. The most significant barriers include crowds, noise, being overwhelmed, and a lack of understanding among staff about their neurodivergent visitors’ struggles. More than half (53 percent) said their kids get overstimulated at museums, while 47 percent said exhibits left their kids understimulated (i.e., bored).

AR: How should museums interpret these findings, and in what areas are museums getting it right and wrong for neurodiverse audiences?

Fleck: Museums that consider the unique needs of neurodivergent visitors, perhaps by training and educating staff, hiring advisors who specialize in these issues, and by fielding surveys to target audiences, have a much better chance of getting it right. Considerations should include what appeals to neurodivergent audiences, such as interactive exhibits or multimedia experiences, to make exhibits more interesting and accessible. Also important: making it easier to move about physical spaces by offering downloadable maps of museums and by making it easy for visitors to move freely to get from one exhibit to another—without having to stand in line or trudge through exhibits that aren’t interesting.

Museums that get it right have staff members who understand that some children get excited in stimulating environments and have trouble controlling themselves. So museums with staffers who approach children gently and respectfully to ask them to refrain from running or keep their voices down without making them feel admonished get it right. Museums that offer noise-canceling headphones; quiet, dimly lit sensory rooms where families can go to help children and adults feel calm; and “quiet hours” for visitors sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and crowds get it right.

AR: From the survey, the magazine pulled together a fun feature titled ADHD Goes to the Museum. Can you share some of the quotes that you heard from respondents?

Fleck: Readers shared their insights into why and how museums draw them in:

  • “As an artist, I find inspiration from being immersed in arts and culture. I have learnt however, that it’s better for me to visit these places on my own so that I can lose myself in the experience and not worry about someone waiting for me.”
  • “Museums and exhibits appeal to neurodivergents because they often center on specific topics or niches such as musical instruments, photography, or history, each of which may be someone’s special interest or current hyperfixation.”

They also shared their biggest challenges and frustrations with visits to cultural spaces:

  • “Interactive, very hands-on. Outdoors is best. There is no way I can get my ADHD son to ‘look without touching.’ Sensory exhibits are great for him; he loves touch.”
  • “Wanting to see everything in a museum can be overwhelming, and following maps can be difficult.”
  • “I don’t like when you have to walk through one exhibit in order to get to another. What if the first one doesn’t interest me?”
  • “We had to leave Vatican City. It was too crowded, and my kids were having more fun sitting on the floor playing a game they made up than seeing amazing works of art.”

And they shared their homegrown solutions to some of these challenges:

  • “Let your child wear headphones to listen to something they find soothing. Don’t pull their headphones off and say, ‘Hey, are you paying attention?’ They will pay attention to what interests them. It’s a family trip, not a boot camp.”
  • “Keep the visit to their attention span.”
  • “Make sure to pack food.”
  • “Download a map and organize anything you need to bring before you go. Start talking about the outing with your kids a week before the big day, so that the excitement is not discharged all at once! Get them to practice waiting and not just expect instant gratification.”

AR: Almost half of the survey’s respondents felt that museums did an excellent job for neurodivergent visitors, while the other half reported that museums were not equipped to serve them, and an additional 47 percent of parents shared that their kids were bored visiting museums.

This isn’t a particularly good report card; what would you say to museums reading this, and what advice would you have for them?

Rodgers: In addition to making exhibits, buildings, and services accessible and hiring experts who can help museum staff and volunteers understand neurodivergent people and their sensitivities and triggers, museums might consider:

  • Offering special hours with limited visitors, dimmed lights, and less noise.
  • Suggesting specific exhibits for children of different ages and estimating the time needed to enjoy each.
  • Including on museums’ websites the hours and days that tend to be less busy; and making available downloadable maps of exhibits and sensory rooms.
  • Offering programs in spaces that are more inclusive for neurodivergent visitors.
  • Scheduling programs for quiet hours.
  • Using emerging technology such as extended reality (XR) to augment exhibits.
  • Providing virtual experiences to prepare neurodivergent people before visiting a museum.
  • Offering exhibits by neurodivergent artists and explaining their background.
  • Providing more seating and marked quiet rooms.
  • Offering audio guides, noise-cancelling headphones (some museums offer headphones, fidget toys, and weighted lap pads in sensory kits or backpacks that are free but require a deposit).
  • Offering personal tour guides just for neurodivergent visitors.
  • Improving education among staff about neurodivergent sensitivities.

AR: You also made a list of museum recommendations based on feedback from readers. What are the commonalities among each of the museums that were listed?

Fleck: Here are the museums cited by ADDitude readers as their favorites, with some quotes regarding why they are so beloved. The connective tissue between most of them is opportunities for hands-on learning and exploring:

  • “OMSI in Portland Oregon has lots of wonderful hands-on exhibits! They also have a wonderful security system in place. I had to call a code blue on a missing student, but we found him!”
  • “The Indianapolis Art Museum has an immersive experience in their LUME exhibit that takes classic artists like Van Gogh and Monet and projects their art on the walls and floors of the gallery, so you literally feel like you’re IN the art. There is soft music that plays to the experience and a large, open floor plan which allows plenty of room to sit on the floor and watch or even walk different rooms. It’s an incredibly unique experience I recently discovered that completely changed the way I would like to experience art exhibits.”
  • “The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is the largest children’s museum in the world, and I can see why it was my favorite place growing up. There are so many fun and interactive exhibits that pop up there from Barbie to LEGOs and Jurassic Park. It’s always been a wonderland of cultural, historical, and childhood memories and I remember a lot of the things I learned from those exhibits growing up still today.”

You can read the full list on ADDitude’s Museum List here.

AR: You also provided several recommendations; can you share those recommendations here and how each supports neurodivergent audiences?

Fleck: ADDitude readers suggested the following accommodations to improve the museum-going experience of visitors with ADHD and other neurodivergent guests:

  • Provide quiet rooms close to big exhibitions to reduce overwhelm.
  • Allow people to bring fidget toys.
  • Set aside time slots for people and groups needing a quieter and less crowded environment.
  • Consider outdoor presentations.
  • Provide clear signage and maps.

Here are their suggestions in their own words:

  • “Establish scavenger hunts or trivia games to keep competitive, restless kids engaged and motivated.”
  • “Provide reduced trigger days with lower lighting, sound, and crowds.”
  • “Quiet rooms close to big exhibitions for reducing overwhelm.”
  • “A calm down/timeout/soundproof/break room that a behavior professional may monitor provides family-friendly, accessible areas and sensory-soothing tools (e.g., quiet regions, low lights, weighted/tactile blankets, cubbies in the wall children can crawl into, and places to spin and jump).”
  • “It is okay if some exhibits are the typical look and read format, but the kinesthetic side of things where I can touch, feel, experience, and truly interact with what is in front of me is such an important part of keeping me engaged and interested that the idea of going through an entire museum or display without those elements can seem quite daunting to undertake.”
  • “Museums should provide etiquette guidelines AND explain why patrons shouldn’t talk on their phones, stand in front of others, etc…”
  • “Educate parents regarding a realistic time frame to get through each exhibit and identify quick exits if needed.”
  • “Entry shortcuts to popular neurodivergent displays (dinosaurs, trains, and anime); divide pathways into fast-track and slower-paced areas.”
  • “Clear maps that help neurodiverse people access all the visits more easily (using colors and clearly identifying rooms, etc.)”

AR: Can you say more about sensory-friendly hours? Would you recommend museums offer them?

Rodgers: Yes, one of our readers is the Director of Customer Experience at the Sydney Theatre Company, and they noted that “The Australian Museum has a semi-regular sensory night that caters to adults: lighting is great; noise is at a regulated level; it’s easy to attend; no discrimination; ND staff in attendance, etc.”

They also made the following recommendations:

  • “Eliminate unnecessary sensory barriers. Provide simple visual stories to arrive at a venue including parking. Provide clear literal written (and verbal) instructions throughout the experience. By clear and literal I mean clear from adjectival marketing embellishment. Making things jazzy and fun are not a replacement for accuracy. Keep distractions to a minimum during any transactional pathway. Be intentional in the messaging.”
  • “Beware the ADHD (and disability) tax. This is very important. Provide reminders for ticketed dates and times, e.g.: including calendar files. Make cancelation and exchanges easy.”
  • “Include neurodivergent professionals in the constructing of these. There are some horrible examples of neurotypicals trying to do the right thing. I know they are trying but please ask.”

AR: How can museums as employers better support their neurodiverse staff and volunteers?

Fleck: A good start:

  • Adopt inclusive hiring practices.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations.
  • Have sensory-friendly rooms or designated quiet areas.
  • Offer workspaces with soft lighting and noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Offer flexible scheduling.
  • Offer support groups for neurodivergent staff.
  • Offer inclusive social events.
  • Ask staff what would help them to feel more comfortable and productive at work.
  • Provide ADDitude magazine subscriptions to staff members.

AR: How can readers learn more about ADDitude magazine?

Rodgers: Visit to sign up for ADDitude magazine. You can also sign up for free newsletters that meet your needs, and register to attend one (or more!) of our free webinars with an ADHD expert. ADDitude has published more than nine thousand pieces of content on every ADHD-related topic imaginable. You can begin exploring online and subscribe to our quarterly print magazine to make sure you receive the latest information on ADHD research, insights, and strategies.

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