Resources for Visitors with Cognitive or Sensory Processing Disabilities

Access Smithsonian
Morning at the Museum participant using magnifying glasses to look at science specimins

This introductory training covers the basics of autism spectrum disorders and how museums can better engage families with children on the Autism spectrum (PDF).

General Museum Tips

Entering the museums:
All visitors must go through the security process at the entrance of the museums, which includes a hand check of bags and walking through a metal detector. If your child has difficulty waiting quietly in line, plan accordingly and bring fidgets, music headphones, or a manipulative toy. Waiting in Line and Museum Security Rules and Routines (PDF)

Items not allowed in the museums:
Items such as markers, colored pencils, silly putty, play dough, food and drinks are not allowed in the museum. 

Museum noise:
If your child is sensitive to sound, consider bringing noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. 

Interactive computer areas:
There are computer interactives in many of the exhibition areas. If the computers distract your child, use the Sensory Map to make a note of where these interactives are located so that you may avoid them. 

Museum alarms:
For some objects in the museum, an alarm will go off if someone gets too close to the object. We want your child to be able to roam freely through the museum, but please do not cross barriers protecting objects. Keeping People in the Right Place (PDF) 

Child indentification:
Make sure your child is wearing, or has identification with him/her, including a contact cell phone number.
The museums are quite large. If your child should wander away from the exhibition area, the cell phone number will enable staff to be able to contact you immediately. Please keep the contact's cell phone ON. Also, you may want to include with the identification information a strategy for what staff can say or do to keep your child calm while we locate you (for example; sing, suggest s/he play with a particular toy, etc.). 

Bathrooms are located throughout the museums. Some museums have a Family/Companion Care restroom. Please inquire at the Information Desk or look at the museum's map to find bathroom locations. Most museum bathrooms have automatic flush toilets, on/off sinks, and electric hand dryers. The hand dryers are very loud and powerful and can be bothersome to those with sensitive hearing. The automatic flush on the toilet can be loud.

Pre-visit Stories

Pre-visit Stories are designed to help prepare your child for situations he/she may encounter at the Smithsonian's museums and zoo. Pre-visit Stories address what to expect, museum rules and routines, safety information, and more. Pre-visit videos are available on the Accessibility for Visitors page.

Good For All Ages

Visiting Museums

Younger Visitors

Going Into a Museum
Waiting in line can be stressful. This story outlines the steps to follow when entering a museum. It can be used to alleviate the anxiety of waiting in line and going through the required security procedures.

5 Big Place Rules 
Five easy rules designed to keep your child safe during a visit to the museum.

Visiting a Museum with my Adult 
Reinforces and reassures the child that he is safe in the care of his companion during the museum visit.

Museum Stories for Young Children

Older Visitors

Waiting at the Museum 
Specifies the areas and explains the circumstances in which a child may have to wait during his or her visit.

Understanding My Adult in a Big Place
A reassuring and encouraging explanation of the importance of your parent or escort.

Keeping People In the Right Place
Describes the different types of barriers which surround displays and explains their purpose.

Museum Noise
Describes a variety of sounds one can hear at a museum and explains where they come from. This provides a contextual frame of reference which can help to improve comprehension of the noise environment and reduce the child's level of anxiety.

Learning about Museum Lockers
A detailed explanation of using a "safe box" for storage and why they may not always be available.

The Stories in a Museum
This story reveals the diverse and exciting assortment of narratives to be found as reflected by the displays and exhibits.

Museum Security Rules and Routines
Illustrates the sequence of events required to complete a Security Check.

How to Share Museum Time With My Family/Class/Group
Conveys the importance of staying with the group and waiting at each display to enable individual group members to fully appreciate the exhibit.