Any family traipsing around a museum is going to meet challenges, but for a family with neurodivergent kids, these outings can be a lot more challenging. Things that are fun and stimulating for most children can cause anxiety for young people with disabilities.
Now, the Minnesota Children’s Museum (MCM) is partnering with an organization called Pal Experiences to welcome families with neurodivergent kids.
April Lizabeth (Liz) Bailey’s oldest daughter, Sky, has severe ADHD. “She gets very overstimulated,” Bailey says. “She doesn’t like unexpected surprises, and she likes to know exactly what’s going to happen.” When the family goes out, her daughter often asks questions about where they are going and what they will be doing.
Bailey’s second child, Sage, has a sensory processing disorder, and is also transgender. The family steers clear of any place where gender is a prominent focal point. “If we go to a show that would say, girls and boys, that might be a little bit triggering,” Bailey says. “We try to stray away from things like that.”
She also has an infant child to add to the mix.
Because of her children’s different diagnoses as well as Sage’s LGBTQ identity, going out and about can be a challenge. They tend to gravitate toward Pride festivals and LGBTQ friendly spaces. “That community is very accepting of anybody that’s neurodivergent,” Bailey says. In general, though, the family is wary. “You just never know what to expect.”
The Minnesota Children’s Museum is one place the family has found to be a welcoming and safe place for them. The Baileys were recently highlighted in a video by the museum and Pal Experiences, a national organization aimed at making spaces more inclusive for people of all abilities.
In late August, MCM announced it had been designated as a “Pal Place,” part of a network of organizations committed to creating access and inclusion, particularly for young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The two institutions developed “know before you go” digital resources for families to access prior to visiting the museum.
“For the museum as an organization, accessibility and inclusion has always been a top priority for us,” says Jessica Petrie, director of marketing and communications for MCM. “We have had different resources and things related to accessibility available for our visitors for as long as we’ve been open, but one of the areas that we had heard that there could possibly be a greater need is that some visitors were wanting to focus on the pre visit.”
For some children, it’s helpful to have preparation before they reach the physical space, so that they know exactly what’s going to happen, Petrie says. “They want to know what the museum looks like, what the experience is going to be like,” she says.
The resource puts everything families need to know about visiting the museum in one place. “What’s great about it is that it’s not just for families who might have children with disabilities, it’s really for all children,” Petrie says.
The project is Pal Experiences’ first partnership in the Midwest, says Melanie Isaacs, Pal Experiences founder and chief inclusion officer.
“We’re just really thrilled to be working with Minnesota Children’s Museum. They are really forward-thinking and it’s such a great place for families to share memories.”
Isaacs says Pal Experiences focuses on digital tools. “We have found that’s the easiest way and the most accessible way to get these tools into the hands of the folks who need them,” she says. Previously, the organization made backpacks filled with materials for the kids it serves. But after talking to families, Pal Experiences found there were still challenges keeping families from getting out of the house in the first place. “We really listened to that,” Isaacs says.
The digital tools — available on a web page and through an app — are based on behavior therapy and best practices to reduce anxiety and help with communication. They help prepare families for sensory stimuli, “but we try not to make it a clinical tool,” Isaacs says. “We make fun videos that foreshadow what to expect.”
For Bailey, whose family is now the star of the new accessibility video, Pal Experiences’ resources were helpful.
“As far as accessibility goals, I thought it was wonderful,” she says. “Everybody was enjoying themselves, but it wasn’t too crazy.”