Guidelines for Autism-Friendly Programs

Guidelines for Autism-Friendly Programs

Assessment and Planning


Program Development and Orientation


Preparing Your Visitors and Training Staff


Related Resources


Assessment and Planning


Define and communicate a clear purpose

: Set achievable goals. Start small so that you can learn as you grow. Clearly communicate your goals to team members and lay out a strategy to create and fund your initiative.



Consider your current visitors as resources:

Are people who have autism or teachers/service providers who work with people on the spectrum already visiting your institution? Start with people who know your institution and can act as advocates. Reach out and ask for their feedback. What attracts constituents to your site? Start with what’s already working and build on that success. Piloting programs with visitors who are already acquainted with your site and programs can be a great way to collect helpful feedback and gain letters of support for future funding opportunities.



Assess your strengths and identify areas to improve:

Invite stakeholders with knowledge or experience about autism to your site to provide feedback on a program and/or the site. Solicit their feedback regarding areas for improvement.



Consider and assess areas for improvement to provide a more welcoming experience:

Are front-line staff knowledgeable and welcoming? Is there signage, as well as available resources, at the box office? Oftentimes, the best starting place is to consider how your institution communicates with the public about what resources you have to offer and adapt them to provide more welcoming tools and resources that preemptively address needs.



Observe already existing programs for people with autism

at other cultural institutions, recreational facilities, and other non-profit organizations that serve individuals who have autism. Visit a variety of program types, audiences and institutions and bring back insights and lessons learned to apply to your own programming.



Form a team of official or unofficial advisors

as you develop programming. This type of engagement also brings their areas of expertise into the development process which can be key to anticipating potential challenges, as well as building audiences.



Program Development and Implementation


Set aside specific dates/times/goals for access programs:

For programs for individuals affected by autism, select times of day when the site is quieter and less crowded to reduce distractions from overstimulation. Consider capping registration with a high ratio of staff to participants.



Basic considerations for physical setting:

Some individuals with autism have difficulties with sensory overload or overstimulation. Consider starting your program in a quiet and comfortable area to ease anxiety and explain route and transitions in detail, using both verbal and written/picture cues. Take groups to spaces that have clear visual boundaries, decrease visuals that may cause overstimulation (flashing lights, multiple A/V), minimize background noise and sound bleed.



Quiet Space:

Identify a quiet space where individuals or families can go to relax. Some things to include: sensory activities, weighted blankets, fidgits, Legos, puzzles or games for independent use are good to have available in that quiet space.



Design multimodal experiences/projects:

Use visual cues, handling objects, and appropriate auditory prompts, whenever possible. Consider starting with a finished project, taking it apart, and putting it back together. Communicate clear steps, both verbally and visually, for hands-on activities so that all participants can be successful.



Communication considerations:

Language is often taxing for people with autism. Use direct language, declarative statements, and encourage observations. Complement instructions with visual aids. Avoid open-ended questions, abstract language, and the use of puns. Use transitional words (first, next, last or first, second, third, etc.) and reference a visual schedule throughout. Prepare cards for students who are non-verbal or who struggle with verbal expression to use cards to express emotion as well as green, red, and yellow cards for “yes, no, and maybe.”



Provide clear communication about the layout of your program, tour, and/or site

, and whenever possible, use visual prompts. At each transition, remind what has been covered and explain what’s coming up next to decrease anxiety. Make sure signage and directions are clear on your website and at your site. It can be hard for some people with autism to ask.




Repetition in material, as well as multi-visit programs, yields a sense of ownership, community, and comfort for people with autism and their caregivers.



Establish guidelines for positive behavior:

Introduce appropriate behaviors for your program (raise hand to ask question, listen when others are talking, etc.). Share with group leader and/or on website for public to review before their visit. Reference positive behavior guidelines at the beginning and reinforce by acknowledging of good behavior.



Create a social narrative to introduce a program

chronologically through photographs, symbols and text. Social narratives can decrease anxiety and increase success, particularly for children.



Be flexible and incorporate multiple approaches

to activities and programs: Provide multiple approaches for visitors to engage and be successful during their visit. For example, when leading an activity or tour, give visitors the choice to complete an activity by writing or drawing or acting out their response.



If appropriate, allow students to bring own objects and food:

Allow visitors to bring and hold onto their own objects if that will help to decrease anxiety and provide comfort. Visitors may request bringing their own food, as some people with autism have special diets (gluten-free, etc). Allow snack time during the program, if possible.



Take cues from teachers/parents:

Many individuals have specific means of communicating and/or skills that they are working on. By noting how adults prompt and reinforce behavior, educators can incorporate into successful interactions.



Stimming/ Repetitive motions or behaviors

– Flapping hands and/or making repetitive motions or sounds are common forms of physical expression for some individuals on the spectrum. Oftentimes, stimming is an expression of joy and repetitive motions (rocking or repeating a phrase, for example) can be calming to individuals who have autism.



Preparing Your Visitors and Training Staff


Provide clear information on website

about sensory-friendly spaces, quiet places, etc. Use people-first language and avoid labeling populations or communicating assumptions about visitors’ needs.



Staff trainings:

During your accessibility trainings for staff, include an overview of how to provide appropriate accommodations for people with autism and invite a consultant to provide specialized trainings, if necessary. Develop and implement specialized training program for educators who will be leading programs designed for visitors on the spectrum.



Develop resources that visitors can be used to preview information about the site:

On your institution’s website, include clear directions, schedules, a social narrative and/or virtual tour (see resources), and suggestions for specialized programs and self-guided experiences. If your site does not have a virtual tour, post a powerpoint slideshow on your website with pictures and descriptions or suggest books that relate to your site, especially picture books that will help prepare visitors for what they will encounter when visiting. Such preparation will help decrease anxiety for all visitors and will be especially useful for people with autism and their caregivers.



Symbols for Accessibility for People with Autism:

While there is no official universal access symbol for autism, a puzzle piece or a ribbon with puzzle pieces inside of it are being used with increasing frequency to communicate to the public that programs and resources are available to visitors affected by autism.



Suggested Resources for Educators:


Room to Grow: A Guide to Arts Programming in Community Spaces for Families Affected by Autism

by Michelle Lopez and Jennifer Candiano, 2012.



TDF Autism Theatre Initiative 


Smithsonian Social Stories


Metropolitan Museum of Art

– Resources for Visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorders: for generating cards that communicate visual vocabulary (picture communication boards)



Examples of excellent virtual tours

that people affected by autism can use to prepare for their visit:

The Frick Collection


Smithsonian Museum National Museum of Natural History

(Desktop and mobile-friendly versions)


Art Project: Google Cultural Institute (Using Google Street View, visitors can virtually visit galleries and view paintings up close. Educational materials are getting built into these virtual visits for use by teachers and families.)


This resource is made possible thanks to the generous support from

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