Dearborn’s The Henry Ford sees itself as a ‘natural place for kids on the spectrum’

This month The Henry Ford received the Autism Alliance of Michigan's (AAoM) Seal of Approval, which recognizes businesses and organizations that make a conscious effort to include people with autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder (ASD/SPD). And in September 2020, The Henry Ford received a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to expand programming for visitors with ASD/SPD. But those are just the most recent milestones in The Henry Ford's long-running, pioneering efforts to support visitors with ASD/SPD.


The Henry Ford hosted its first official, dedicated event for people with ASD/SPD in 2001: a ride on the Thomas the Tank Engine train, which makes a popular annual visit to Greenfield Village, and associated activities.


"Autism didn't really have a distinct diagnosis until the early 1990s,” says Amy Louise Liedel, The Henry Ford’s senior director of guest operations. “So for us to have an event just 10 years later was pretty groundbreaking."


However, she adds, “we weren't really sophisticated enough to know what kinds of other tools to offer.” Through the Thomas event, The Henry Ford connected with what was then the Michigan Autism Society. The Henry Ford presented sporadic events for people with ASD/SPD in the years following, but it ramped up its efforts after AAoM was formed in 2012. The Henry Ford and AAoM shared a few of the same board members, so the organizations began to partner more closely in the early 2010s. One early key element of that partnership involved offering AAoM safety training for The Henry Ford’s staff, teaching them how to make visitors with ASD/SPD feel safer.


"[AAoM was] primarily doing the safety training with police departments, hospitals – places where there's emergency services going on, where people with autism can possibly be misread and injured,” Liedel says. “We were one of the first museums to say, 'We want that as well.'"


That led The Henry Ford to offer “sensory-friendly” programming beginning in 2016. The institution’s sensory-friendly events involve a number of unique resources and atmospheric changes that are sensitive to the needs of people with ASD/SPD. For instance, a map shows visitors where they may encounter bright lights or loud sounds, or find quiet zones. Lights and sounds are turned down in certain areas of The Henry Ford, and noise-canceling headphones and earplugs are available to visitors.


Visitors with ASD/SPD are welcome at The Henry Ford any time, of course. But Caroline Braden, The Henry Ford's accessibility specialist, says dedicated sensory-friendly events are a plus for parents of kids with ASD/SPD.


"They know that others there in attendance are experiencing a lot of the same things as their own children, and also know that we've put things in place ... that help them know we're thinking about them and their needs during their visit,” she says.


Braden has also spearheaded the formation of a group of Michigan cultural institutions that work together to advance better accessibility policies. The Michigan Alliance for Cultural Accessibility (MACA) originally began in 2016 as a collaboration between The Henry Ford, the Michigan Science Center, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. But MACA has continued to grow since then to include over 40 institutions statewide. Braden says the group has been particularly valuable in navigating the challenge of continuing to offer accessible programming during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Now, with financial help from the IMLS grant, The Henry Ford is beginning to dramatically expand its programming for visitors with ASD/SPD. The Henry Ford had planned to host about 19,000 people with autism for each of the three years of the grant, increasing its annual number of sensory-friendly events from three or four to 13-15. Given the pandemic, Liedel says staff have had to “completely redesign” their programming plans for a virtual model, although they hope to resume in-person offerings this summer.


Other efforts have proceeded without hindrance from the pandemic. One major change is that The Henry Ford now offers free admission to those with ASD/SPD. Braden, Liedel, and their colleagues are also planning to introduce new programming geared specifically towards teens and young adults with ASD/SPD. They're dedicated to continuing to improve a learning environment that can already be highly valuable to individuals with ASD/SPD.


"Museums are a natural place for kids on the spectrum who maybe don't connect as well to formal education, but maybe have a fascination with a certain subject," Liedel says. "Museums can really spark that and nurture that in them."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere