A Look Inside ArtAccess' Autism Initiative

The ArtAccess program has been a staple at the Queens Museum of Art for many years.  ArtAccess works with the community to provide classes held by full-time professionals trained in Creative Art Therapy for visitors with special needs.  The program helps to allow these visitors to enjoy personal connections to works of art.  The Autism Initiative is a program that ArtAccess is currently working on.

Spotlight on Program for Spanish Families with Children on the Autism Spectrum

-Michelle López, Senior Coordinator, ArtAccess Library Programs & Autism Initiatives

Our program for families affected by autism was started by the community.  When the New New Yorker’s Program started art classes in Spanish, one of the participating families had two children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  After enrolling their children in the program, the family began to witness that their eldest son’s enthusiasm for the art experiences in class was causing new language to emerge.  He spoke about the Museum regularly and would request frequent visits.  The parents then invited other families with children with special needs to attend the class. This class grew rapidly, and the educator expressed a need for assistance from the ArtAccess Department.  We created a separate and closed group just for these families with the adaptations necessary to meet their needs.  

We learned much through the process of collaboration, the first being that many of the families had very little interaction with their community.  There seemed to be a double isolation for these families because not only do the parents have children with autism, but they are also immigrants with limited English proficiency.  In our classes, parents found support from a knowledgeable professional and from other parents with similar experiences. Many of the families from the class began to attend the QMA in groups to participate in other, more inclusive programming. They began to do more activities in public spaces as an extended family.  These experiences provoked the QMA to partner with Queens Library in an effort to create more opportunities for families affected by autism to engage in the community through the arts. In turn, this partnership hopes to influence the accessibility and sensitivity of cultural institutions for people with special needs.

Maureen O’Connor, Deputy Director of the Queens Library adds, “We want to improve our services to children with special needs, in particular, children with autism. Whether these children and their families aren’t using libraries because libraries are not developing specialized programs isn’t clear. While we were mulling over where to begin, I met Michelle and learned about all of the work she is doing at the Museum.  The autism project seemed like a perfect enhancement to our partnership…mixing library services and arts education seems like a perfect match to improve the education and experiences of special needs children.”

For individuals with special needs education often ceases when they age out of the school system. Libraries and museums provide people of all ages and backgrounds access to art, books, and all kinds of media along with the professional assistance of librarians and educators. Cultural institutions provide opportunities for learning across the lifespan.  A parent who has a child with special needs requires their community’s help and support to carry out the intentions they have in improving the quality of their child’s life into adulthood.  One of the symptoms of autism is impaired social skills. Social skills cannot be improved upon if these children do not have access to opportunities and spaces in which to be social.  I believe that families are the organizations from which our culture emerges.   How can a culture be impacted if it makes it impossible for all people to access its cultural institutions?  People, not just objects, contribute to the quality of our culture.