Milwaukee Public Museum Creates Sensory Room for Visitors with Autism

Heightened sensitivity to noise, touch, and light is a hallmark of autism, a neurodevelopmental condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Over the past year, several major organizations, including airports and professional sports teams, have taken steps to accommodate visitors with autism with the introduction of “sensory rooms,” spaces that offer a respite from the sensory input that might be overwhelming to many people on the autism spectrum.

This month, the Milwaukee Public Museum followed suit by adding a sensory room to its facility in downtown Milwaukee. A sensory room was much needed given that the museum, which focuses on natural and human history, features numerous sights and sounds that might be exhilarating to typical visitors, but stressful and disorienting to those with autism. Most of that sensory experience takes place on the museum’s first floor, which features a dinosaur exhibit with thunderstorms, a butterfly wing, and a virtual trolley.

“We keep hearing how sensory-rich our exhibits are," Megan Schopp, the museum’s senior director of education and programs, said. "When they were designed 25 years ago, 30 years ago, people weren't thinking about sensory needs.”

According to a report this month, the sensory room was created with input from groups and visitors. As of now, it includes walls painted in a calming color, low lighting and soft sounds (which can be controlled by visitors according to their needs), and texture panels on the walls that people can touch. The room also features seating options, such as soft floor mats, soft bean bag chairs, and chairs that rock back and forth for both children and adults. Shelves are stocked with fidget toys and books for those who would like to relax with a story.

“There have been visitors to the sensory room every day since we opened it," Schopp said. "We're hoping it provides a place for people to calm themselves when they need it, so that they're able to then go back to the exhibit floor to enjoy their experience."


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