Zimmerli Art Museum Offers New Tools for Visitors With Sensory-Related Disorders
Museum staff are trained to help visitors have a rewarding experience
"A common misperception is that autism is just a behavioral disorder, but it affects processes in our nervous system, which can create a feeling of vertigo or the sense of a lack of gravity" - Elizabeth Torres, director of The New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence at Rutgers–New Brunswick
The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University-New Brunswick is the first art museum in New Jersey to offer specialized tools to help visitors on the autism spectrum enjoy their visit without stressful sensory overload.
The museum is collaborating with KultureCity, a nonprofit that has also worked with MetLife Stadium, to offer the training and materials needed to provide a more positive experience for those with autism, PTSD or other conditions that may cause sensory overload.
Free sensory inclusive bags available to use during visits include fidget tools (handheld objects that can be squeezed and manipulated to help focus the user’s sense of touch), cue cards that people with verbal impairments can use to communicate their needs and moods, noise-cancelling headphones and weighted lap pads to help direct the user’s feeling of their center of gravity.
“A common misperception is that autism is just a behavioral disorder, but it affects processes in our nervous system, which can create a feeling of vertigo or the sense of a lack of gravity,” said Elizabeth Torres, a Rutgers professor of psychology and director of the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “Astronauts who return from a long space mission are given weighted suits to bring back their center of gravity until they readjust. In a similar fashion, people with autism can’t always feel their own body weight. For some, the feeling is constant and very disorienting.”
Through the partnership with KultureCity, Zimmerli staff received training on how to recognize when a visitor may have sensory needs, such as covering their ears or flapping their hands, and how to step in and offer them sensory support.
“We’re now better prepared to assist guests with autism and other sensory sensitivities in having the most comfortable and accommodating experience possible when attending any exhibition or program at the museum,” said Thomas Sokolowski, Zimmerli Art Museum director.
Before adopting the new sensory tools, the Zimmerli offered customized group tours to visitors with autism and related conditions. A KultureCity app is also available for download that displays available sensory devices at Zimmerli and how they can be accessed, as well as a customized social story that helps visitors prepare for their visit.
“People with sensory disorders and their families now have the freedom to visit at any time and have confidence they will be assisted properly if they experience sensory overload or otherwise need support,” said Amanda Potter, curator of education at the Zimmerli.
Potter said the sensory tools can help people of all ages. “There is also a necklace that visitors can wear that alerts staff to keep a close eye on a person so they don’t get separated from their group, which can happen not only to children but to people with dementia.”
While the sensory tools are a big first step to helping combat sensory sensitivity, Torres said museums can do more, such as partnering with autism centers and offering information cards to improve public understanding of autism-related disorders.
“We are having exploratory conversations with Rutgers' Center for Adult Autism Services to find more ways to help the autism community in New Jersey, including by providing job services and creating designated quiet spaces during crowded events, such as Rutgers Day,” Potter said. “Autism services are an area for growth, so we will work to expand our services. This is just the start.”
Rutgers-New Brunswick is a leader in autism research and services, recently appointing its inaugural director of the Rutgers Center for Autism Research, Education and Services (RUCARES) and CHS-RUCARES, a clinical entity created through Rutgers’ partnership with Children’s Specialized Hospital. The university’s Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center includes an on-campus K-12 day school for children with autism. In addition, the university broke ground on a new state-of-the-art facility for the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services, which provides employment, vocational training and other services and partners with Children’s Specialized Hospital to operate the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence.