An Art Museum Hosts a Virtual Sensory-Friendly Workshop

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Picture this: You join a Zoom call. You first see a gallery of new faces. You hear scattered chatter in the group.  People interrupt one another.  They apologize for their audio delays. You notice a cluttered workspace behind some.  While other participants have a bright, patterned virtual background. You notice that people walk behind another participant on camera. While another is interrupted by their barking dog.  And the children of another participant are in and out of view. The host carries on.  There is an animated slideshow.  Moreover, it is filled with busy images and videos.  This experience is the opposite of a virtual sensory-friendly workshop. But it is commonplace.

For someone with sensory sensitivity, these few minutes on Zoom result in sensory overload. Sensory overload happens when you are overwhelmed by your senses. In the busy, noisy, bright online and virtual world, what can be done?  There are sensory-friendly solutions. And, The Andy Warhol Museum leads the way. 

Art work displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s example

Through their virtual sensory-friendly workshop, The Andy Warhol Museum demonstrates that a sensory-friendly experience is possible online. The museum, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, created an accessible and comfortable experience for online guests.  They brought a sensory-friendly workshop straight to the homes of people with sensory sensitivity.  

Infographic outlining 4 strategies to make a sensory-friendly art workshop.

A virtual workshop for people with autism

The workshop was designed specifically for people with autism. The goal was to explore the early works of Andy Warhol.  And wonderfully for guests to then create their own art from home based on his practice.  

Autism often causes difficulties with sensory processing. That means that an autistic person may find typical Zoom environments a challenge.  In fact, anyone with any type of sensory sensitivity can find online, virtual environments difficult.  In-person accommodations are no longer available in an online world.  Businesses and organizations must shift gears. They must develop strategies to include people in the virtual space.  

Simple changes to consider

Preparation

The Andy Warhol Museum planned their workshop.  They minimized the experience of sensory overload. Prior to the workshop, they provided guests with a sensory story.  It was a story about what to expect during the workshop. Thus, they eliminated the element of surprise.  That meant people felt prepared for the sensory experience of the workshop. 

“The best way to create accessible programs is to make sure you are accommodating a variety of learning styles. Affirming spaces where people of all abilities can learn and create, however it suits them, can be a conduit for connection in these times of deep disconnect.” 

Shannon Thompson, Inclusions Program Coordinator, The Andy Warhol Museum

The number of attendees at the hour-long workshop was intentionally kept low. They made a limited number of tickets available. Even though the event was free; it sold out. Guests were instructed to keep their mics muted.  That is, unless they had a question or comment to share.  That minimized audio distractions.  

A low sensory-experience

In fact, only one facilitator of the workshop kept their microphone on and greeted each guest as they joined.  There was no background music. Guests were advised they did not need to keep their camera on.  Nor did they need to unmute and speak, unless they wanted too.  And finally, sharing artwork was optional too. Everyone was encouraged to follow along at their own pace. Questions were permitted.  They used the hand raising feature or chat for questions, so there was no additional noise.

The facilitator shared were minimalistic slides.  So low text and graphics.  They were easy to follow.  The slides did not have distractions. The facilitator maintained a steady pace.  The facilitator also built in time for participants to read the slides.  And subsequently, to perform the art-making activities. Additionally, participants were reassured that they could take breaks as needed.  The event was recorded with permission. Thus it could be accessed after the workshop.

The team that together the virtual, sensory-friendly workshop at The Andy Warhol Museum made careful decision. They gave people around the world the chance to experience art in a safe and comfortable way. They are leaders! 

Tips for a virtual, sensory-friendly workshop

  • Share about your organization beforehand. 
  • Share information about the presenters and facilitators beforehand. 
  • Provide guests with a sensory-friendly story about the event that describes the sensory experience.
  • Restrict the number of participants.
  • Provide detailed instructions prior to the event, in writing.
  • Provide instructions again at the beginning of the event.  
  • Explain how to mute microphones. 
  • Explain how to turn off video features. 
  • Do not include music or sound effects in your presentation or the event call. 
  • Use minimal text, images, and colors on any slides.
  • Incorporate frequent breaks in your event.  
  • Record the event to allow for access at a later time. 
Illustration of group of people. Ages ranges from babies to seniors. Some people are in wheelchair or scooter, pushing a baby stroller, have a prostetic limb or wear a hijab. All designed in a blue and orange colour pallet.

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