Each pack contains creative materials, self-soothing objects that participants can manipulate, a map of the galleries, and four worksheets for artwork-based activities that stimulate three of the five senses: sight, hearing and touch. Presented in a way that is simple and playful, the activities, which have been vetted by our specialized community partners, encourage participants to study works of art more closely, explore the Museum environment at their own pace, and develop their curiosity and creativity. They also prompt participants to become aware of how they feel in response to the artworks, and encourage communication between themselves and the person accompanying them.
Sensational Supplies Pack. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière
Since 2015, the Art of Being Unique, one of the MMFA’s accessibility and inclusion programs, has been making art more accessible to people with autism by offering them guided tours, creativity and art therapy workshops, and socio-vocational integration internships. Wanting to expand this program to a wider audience and enable people with ASD to experience self-directed visits at the MMFA, the Museum subsequently developed the Sensational Supplies Pack.
Educational Program Officers Louise Giroux (LG) and Patricia Boyer (PB) talk to us about the development and implementation of this groundbreaking initiative.
How did you get the idea of creating a tool to accompany visitors who are neurodiverse?
LG. After we published the Guide for Welcoming Museum Visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorders in 2021, in collaboration with our FRAME Network colleagues at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Palais des beaux-arts de Lille, we continued to develop tools and programs for people with autism. Up to that point, we had carried out a number of projects for groups, but nothing for individual visitors or families with special needs. So, Patricia and I got the idea of creating activity worksheets based on the five senses in order to stimulate interactions between family members during their Museum visit, and to help participants connect with the artworks.
PB. We already offer numerous workshops for families in general – which are popular among the community – but we wanted to do more. We started asking ourselves how we could enhance our existing offering, in particular for families with special needs. The Sensational Supplies Pack is the first step in that direction. The message we want to get across is simple yet important: You are welcome at the Museum!
What role does sensory exploration play in the activities you developed?
LG. In looking into what’s being done in other museums, and in interacting with people with autism on a regular basis in our work with different community organizations, we came to realize that a sensory approach was key. People who are neurodiverse perceive sensations differently, they communicate in different ways. Activities that draw on the senses tap into memories, direct experiences and the imagination, which can then be used to form new connections with the world around you, in this case, artworks.
Also, the works easily lend themselves to creating connections with all the senses: looking at a still life might remind you of a delicious meal with family; a seaside landscape might conjure the smell of salt on the air and the cries of seagulls. Through the garments in a portrait, you might see something similar in your own clothing or what your grandfather wears, and you can imagine touching the fabrics and the particular feel of their textures. In short, looking at an artwork through the prism of the senses can open up a world of possibilities!
PB. Exactly! A tool like the Sensational Supplies Pack answers children’s need to explore the world through their senses and their bodies, as well as parents’ need for simple activities that are adapted to their children and whatever sensitivities they might have.
In addition to creative materials and activity worksheets, the supplies pack contains some self-soothing objects. Why are these items important?
LG. When a person with autism is in a public place, they can feel so bombarded by sensory information that they become overwhelmed with anxiety. The manipulation and noise- or light-reduction tools can help them regain a state of calm. Some people also find that handling these objects helps them concentrate. We thought it would be important to include such tools, because the museum is a stimuli-rich environment.
PB. Some of the calming objects will also be offered in our Family Weekend workshops, as the Museum wants to increase their offering of inclusive activities for families with special needs.
Take me through a visit with the Sensational Supplies Pack from start to finish.
LG. We have a number of Sensational Supplies Packs in stock, and they must be reserved in advance by phone by calling 514-285-2000. They are available for use Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon. Upon arriving at the Museum, the visitors are greeted by a member of our team, who gives them the information they need and sees them off on their discovery of the collection. Equipped with their pack, the family is then free to choose from among the activity worksheets and self-soothing objects available to them. We recommend that visitors read over the worksheets prior to starting their visit, to make sure the activities are adapted to their needs.
PB. It’s important that the exploration be a stress-free experience. Maybe just one activity will be enough, or maybe the child will use the objects and worksheets differently than what’s laid out. That’s perfectly fine. Our main goal is to encourage physical and mental well-being and a joyful family experience.
Where do you see this project going from here?
LG. It will depend on the feedback we receive from visitors. The Sensational Supplies Pack was developed around the international art collection in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. We hope to eventually expand it to other Museum collections.
PB. These supplies packs will give us more opportunities to work with families with neurodiverse children and to hear their wishes and needs. This will enable the Museum to develop engaging mediation strategies that conform even better to its community.
Photo Michael Patten
Acknowledgements The Sensational Supplies Pack is funded by the Government of Quebec. The Fondation de la Chenelière is the Great Patron of the Art of Being Unique program. The Museum extends its thanks to Stella-Jones and its creative partner, DeSerres.
The Museum would like to thank its partners that work with neurodiverse children and adults: Autisme sans limites, Autism Speaks Canada, Centre François-Michelle, the Gold Centre, Giant Steps School, École Irénée-Lussier, École Notre-Dames-des-Victoires, École Sainte-Étienne, Foundation Les Petits Rois, the Miriam Foundation and See Things My Way.