During the early days of the pandemic, Peggy Speir did what many others were doing to pass the time: Watch Netflix.
As the online streaming service generated more web traffic than it had ever seen before, she stumbled across a documentary series called “Love on the Spectrum” that inspired her work as the manager of access programs and resources at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
“The focus of the show was on dating, but it got me thinking, you know, ‘neurodivergent adults are looking for social experiences too,’ ” she said. “How can the museum do something like that?”
In the past, the museum offered several events for kids with Autism and their families, but there was a gap in programming when it came to neurodivergent adults.
Neurodivergent is an umbrella term for people with brain differences like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome or dyslexia.
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Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Sunday
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10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday
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Janice Johnstone and her 27-year-old son, Thomas, enjoy going to museums in Fort Worth and exploring new ones when they travel. The pair was excited to learn about the event for neurodivergent adults.
“I think it’s very important that they provide an opportunity for neurodivergent adults because a lot of time services end when they graduate from high school or they finish extended education through Fort Worth ISD,” Janice Johnstone said.
During the event, they had the opportunity to explore the museum without the crowds that are often close by when new exhibits open up.
Holding the event on a weeknight rather than weekend, helps control traffic, but for guests who still might get overwhelmed or need a few minutes to themselves, the museum sets up a designated “chill out” zone in the library.
The lights are dimmed and there are several tools nearby to help anyone who might feel overstimulated like noise canceling headphones, weighted blankets and fidget toys.
Lucia Rake brought her 14-year-old daughter, Sofia, to the event.
“She is nonverbal, so for her, it’s hard to communicate with others,” Rake said. “We understand what she’s saying, but other people don’t.”
Sometimes when Sofia tries to vocalize in public, it can be loud and attract negative attention from others, Rake said.
“There are not many events where my daughter is welcome,” she said. “So this is a good opportunity for her to do something else besides just (go to) the park or movie theater.”
Education staff donning blue Amon Carter Shirts and black aprons stand at sensory stations sprinkled throughout the museum; the displays vary with each event. At one table rests a handful of real life versions of items depicted in a painting, like sticks of bamboo, a fishing vest with several pockets and a bucket hat. At another there are small-scale 3D-printed replicas of sculptures that guests can pick up and hold. And at several stations, there are black and white versions of the art, with raised-line drawings and braille that help patrons with visual impairments get a better sense of the art.
While some of these aids are specific to the event, others are available all the time, like large print gallery labels, or others that can be checked-out, like special glasses for colorblind guests, assistive listening devices or tactile tool kits.
The museum tries to follow universal design principles by creating spaces and experiences that are accessible to all people, which enriches the experience of everyone, Speir said.
In addition to self-paced activities that change with each event, like a station where guests can design their own paper dolls, there is also an optional group activity.
On this occasion, that activity was a “Project Runway”-esque challenge that asked guests to design an outfit using craft supplies like paper, coffee filters and tape.
Three images of artwork were projected on the screen for inspiration and the session started with a short set of instructions and a clear timeline of when the design phase would stop and when the fashion show would start.
Brandon Byles isn’t usually the artistic type, but he decided to design an outfit for the fashion show anyway, the 24-year-old junior at the University of North Texas said.
“It’s certainly very cool to actually have to come up with something in the spur of the moment,” he said. “I am not always the best with speed and efficiency, and that kind of put a good challenge on me.”
Byles attended the event with EPIC, which stands for Empowering Personal Interactions in the Community. The group collaborated with the Carter on the event and is geared toward supporting neurodivergent and neurotypical adults at UNT and the community at large.
Erica Bridges, a fifth-year senior at the school, is another member of the group and helped two of her friends design a ’70s-inspired purple shift dress for the fashion show.
“I keep going because I feel safe with the group to be myself,” the 22-year-old said. “It gives us all a chance to get out of our houses or our dorm rooms and be with people where we can be ourselves and not have anyone judge us.”
Lauren Mathews is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Texas and EPIC’s faculty adviser. She specializes in helping with communication skills for adults and kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“Museums can be overwhelming,” Mathews said. “They’ve done this for younger children for years, and so I loved that they wanted to expand it to adults … we just thought it was a great collaboration that we could support.”
Mathews also provides training and resources for museum staff on interacting with neurodivergent guests.
In addition to the staff’s regular training with the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University, they have a refresher course ahead of access events.
The pandemic gave the Carter the opportunity to refine some of its programming, but it also killed some of the momentum that had been building. But, Speir, the manager of access programs and resources for the museum, hopes the Carter can build that back up.
“I don’t think a lot of people think of looking to an art museum for these types of experiences,” she said. “We’re just hoping that more and more people realize by us having things like ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters at our events and having these large print labels that we are a place, regardless of ability, that you can come here and you can enjoy great American art.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.