For nearly 20 years, The Henry Ford has sought to provide safe, unique, and engaging experiences for our members and guests on the autism spectrum and their families. It has been a long journey, with a slow start and a positive twist during a worldwide pandemic in 2020, an otherwise extremely challenging year. We are pleased to share with you a brief history of our efforts and an exciting announcement about opportunities for future visits to The Henry Ford.
Early efforts at specialized programming began in 2000 with a partnership event with the Autism Society of Michigan during one of our first Day Out With Thomas events and later with safety trainings led by the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM). Guest-facing staff and security personnel were trained on the impacts of autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder (ASD/SPD) and given basic instruction on how to interact with caregivers and assist in keeping these guests safe while visiting. The focus was on improving service and engagement for guests with ASD/SPD who were already visiting, not necessarily on drawing more families and guests with ASD/SPD to our venues and programs.
Sensory-friendly entrance sign in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
By 2015, our desire to serve more guests with disabilities had evolved into concrete initiatives and plans with the addition of Caroline Braden, now our full-time accessibility specialist on the Guest Services Team. Caroline's background in museums and accessibility programming allowed us to build and deliver a broad range of services, programs and accommodations designed for guests with disabilities, both on-site and online. I personally have had the privilege of working with Caroline and many outstanding partners and colleagues who have contributed to the growth of accessibility programming over the years. Additionally, this work has been a personal passion, as my youngest child has been diagnosed with ASD.
At The Henry Ford, our current sensory-friendly programming began in 2016. Since then, we have had at least three or four sensory-friendly events a year. These events have included such offerings as pre-visit materials (i.e., social narratives), sensory-friendly maps, noise-canceling headphones and earplugs, quiet zones, and turning loud sounds down or off. We have also offered exclusive access times to some of our exhibits and events, such as our Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village event—one of our most popular sensory-friendly events of the past few years.
Sensory-friendly entrance sign at Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village.
Which brings us to our exciting news and the most positive twist in this story—a substantial grant that The Henry Ford received this past fall from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This grant will enable us to significantly expand our current sensory-friendly programming to provide access to over 18,000 guests with ASD/SPD and their families within the funding period of three years.
To do this, The Henry Ford will increase the number of sensory-friendly events to 13–15 a year, including more access and accommodations for our special annual events. We will also develop and launch a new program for teens and young adults with ASD/SPD that will include activities aimed at social skill-building and networking. This programming will include not only the successful access and accommodations we have provided in the past but free admission as well, removing any unique economic and/or social barriers.
As an additional component of the grant, we are developing new training for staff in partnership with AAoM. This training, combined with the yearly safety training from AAoM, will be designed to broaden awareness and develop programmatic and service skills around the unique needs of those with ASD/SPD.
The timing of this grant during the COVID-19 pandemic has made our delivery of sensory-friendly programming more complex. As safety is our number one priority, The Henry Ford is operating at 25% of normal venue capacities, and some venues and programming are not available at all. IMLS, however, has been extremely flexible in allowing us to modify our on-site programming and move certain aspects to virtual programming. For updates on virtual opportunities and onsite events in 2021, continue to follow The Henry Ford’s social channels and website.
Amy Louise Liedel of The Henry Ford receives AAoM’s Seal of Approval from AAoM President & CEO Colleen Allen.
We are also proud to have recently received AAoM’s Seal of Approval endorsement. The endorsement is given by AAoM to businesses and organizations in Michigan who demonstrate a conscious effort to accommodate and include individuals with autism in community activities that all families enjoy.
We look forward to continuing to expand our sensory-friendly offerings and hope to see you soon at The Henry Ford.
Amy Louise Liedel is Senior Director of Guest Operations at The Henry Ford.