Parents of an autistic child know firsthand how overwhelming being out in public can be for them. Long queues, bright lights, loud noises, and total strangers bumping into them. For many years, taking my autistic daughter to an amusement park, a soft play area, or the theatre was out of the question. Luckily there are now many autism-friendly museums in London that organise events for families like ours.
No more than 12-15 families of autistic children and young people are accommodated at these events. This is to make sure that the museum does not get overcrowded or noisy. Lights are dimmed and sounds are reduced to make it as sensory friendly as possible. They are usually early in the morning or later in the evening outside of normal opening hours. Museums publicise the specific days well in advance and they usually sell out within hours! And the best thing is that these events are either for free or very affordable.
This was our very first experience of autism-friendly museums in London. We were pleasantly surprised at how friendly the staff at the Science Museum was. They were very mindful of what families like ours would appreciate. We attended the Early Birds event one Saturday morning and explored the galleries at our own pace, floor by floor. Although my daughter is not really into space, she was very excited to touch a moon rock using gloves and see real-life spacesuits.
The Early Birds events are completely free and suitable for families with autistic children aged 4–15. Because of the event’s popularity, the museum soon added a Night Owls event for autistic teenagers and adults. Booking opens about one month before the event on their website or you can call +44 (0)20 7942 4000.
Natural History Museum
With a name like Dawnosaurs for an early morning event, how sweeter can you get? The Natural History Museum opens early at 8 am on certain mornings with a whole programme of sensory activities, including a chance to see, meet and even touch live animals. A week before the event, the museum emailed us the programme and a map. They even included a social story which I showed my daughter in preparation for the visit. The event is free and the activities are all supported by experienced, autism-aware facilitators.
At 10 am, the museum opens to the public though. I would recommend you start with your child’s special interests and make your way around the galleries with that in mind. The good news is that the interactive Investigate science centre and the sensory room remain open exclusively to booked Dawnosaurs visitors until 11 am. Bookings are made through the website one month in advance. Make sure you join their mailing list so you are alerted when bookings open.
Museum of London
We visited the Museum of London site near Barbican during an event called Morning Explorers. The staff organised themed Lego, Minecraft and arts and crafts activities that families enjoyed together. My daughter was really intrigued by the displays of clothes and toys from the Expanding City’s gallery, which covers the period 1670s to 1850s.
The website has sensory maps and activity sheets that we printed in advance. They also offered activity bags for free at the entrance. If you needed child-sized ear defenders, they were available at the information desk. There was a sensory space too in case it got too overwhelming. Booking needs to be done in advance by emailing [email protected].
London Transport Museum
Not only is it the world’s leading museum of urban transport, but it is also located in one of my cherished places in London – Covent Garden. We attended the museum’s Early Explorer session. You are guided to take the lift up to level 2 which has the 19th century London displays. Then you make your way down chronologically to levels 1 and 0.
My daughter had a great time playing in the All Aboard family space in peace. She was especially thrilled to dress up as a bus driver! They had a stamper trail and sensory bags available. They even prepared a visual story you can download from their website. Children and young people under 18 go free while adults are charged general admission rate. To book a session you have to call +44 (0)343 222 5000.
I was not expecting to enjoy this visit in particular because I have a fear of heights. Besides my daughter never really took a special interest in ships or bridges. It was the first year Tower Bridge plans an autism-friendly event for families so we thought it was worth checking out. We went up the tower and spent most of our time on the walkways.
My daughter was mesmerised by the glass floor and sat there for what felt like half an hour gazing down at the river and road traffic. She and my husband got stickers for being brave enough to cross the glass floor! Meanwhile, I just held onto the railings and looked out the windows. There are three timed slots; 9:15 am, 9:30 am and 9:45 am. Since the museum opens to the public at 10 am, try your best to book the first slot and make the effort to wake up early on a Saturday! To book you can contact [email protected] or call +44 (0)20 7940 8397.