Experiencing Museums through an Autistic Perspective

By Emily Elsworth


Museums have always been a space that I have enjoyed visiting, the opportunity to learn about different historical eras or areas of science is something I love to do. These spaces offer an escapism from everything else going on in the world and the breadth of sites and exhibitions means that there is always something new to see or do at each museum.

That doesn’t mean that each visit doesn’t come with its own challenges which until recently I didn’t understand why. I received my autism diagnosis in November 2020 and everything I had experienced throughout my life suddenly made sense. I was able to reflect back on my previous visits to museums and put together the reasons why I had struggled or enjoyed the visit.

One of the elements that has always made me feel more comfortable is the amount of information on the website, including opening times, galleries, temporary exhibitions, cafes/menus and a map of the site. The more I am able to prepare in advance the better. This also reflects on the visit itself as well, if there is good signage and information available this will ultimately help me to have a more relaxed visit.

One thing I do find with visits to museums is that if there is lots of information to take in from the variety of information panels then this can become overwhelming especially if the information is presented as long pieces of text. However, if the museum offers live interpretations, I find this reduces the amount of overwhelm as it breaks up the format the information is given in.

As well as being a keen visitor to museums, I have also worked in several museums. This experience was fantastic for me as I was able to use my passions as well as my hyper focus to be able to be successful in my role working within museum education. When I reflect upon my previous roles this offers the opportunity for me to see the real strengths to being autistic. Each role required learning lots of information about several different topics which I loved doing and being able to immerse myself in the different topics. I also found that having a keen eye for detail was always helpful especially during busy periods.

However, it was during my last role within a museum that my mental health really started to suffer from the amount of masking that I was doing to try and keep up with my working environment. I became really aware of my sensory needs especially being hypersensitive to sound. Museums can be extremely echoey buildings which means that even the slightest sound can be really painful for me. Whilst I enjoyed when I was busy with work, I found that the site itself being busy added to my anxiety and exhaustion from trying not to show how much this affected me. Eventually my experiences of being undiagnosed and not knowing how to cope did mean that I experienced burnout.

Although I have had negative experiences in museums and I still have moments where I will experience sensory overload. Museums will always be one of my favourite places to visit!