I grew up in Maine. My mom was an avid history buff, so we spent weekends going to lighthouses, historic sites and museums all over the Eastern U.S. We spent a week in Washington, D.C. when I was ten – one of my fondest memories, especially visiting the Goveronor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg, and getting lost in the hedgerow labyrinth. I loved Monticello and all the Smithsonian museums. When I was thirteen, we took a family trip to Campobello Island to see the summer home of FDR. I loved climbing the rocks to the lighthouse and having to beat the tide to get back before those rocks were covered with water, and still remember my amazement that someone lived at the lighthouse, stranded at high tide with only a small boat. We took many trips to familiar haunts in Florida, like Castillo de San Marcus in St Augustine, where we walked along quaint cobblestone streets lined with wisteria. I remember visiting Historic Ybor City in Tampa, going to the cigar factory and seeing the tile walls, green plants and beautiful dolphin fountain of my grandparents’ favorite Columbia Restaurant. At Bok Tower Gardens, I loved listening to the majestic carillon and exploring the visitors center. I have great memories of traveling to Pennsylvania Dutch country and staying at a working Amish farm.
I now have my own children, and finding places that are friendly for my family is not always so easy. I had hoped to travel with my family, giving my children the kinds of experiences I had as a child, helping them see the grown-up world and interact with history. These plans have sometimes been thwarted by an important factor in my family’s life: the fact that my son has Asperger’s Syndrome.
My son loves museums and loves learning. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and many interests that he loves to talk about. He is eleven, but he can be very age-inappropriate. He throws tantrums if he is agitated, hungry, bored, or if something in his environment causes him sensory over- or under-stimulation. He needs hugs to satisfy his need for sensory pressure, and he needs to snack often or chew gum. He gets bored with the familiar.
When my son was a hyperactive toddler of 22 months, my parents took us to Old Salem in North Carolina. We stayed in a comfortable old bed-and-breakfast and visited the shops and houses. Even though my toddler was not always well behaved and we had to plan around his schedule, it was easier having the bed and breakfast just a walk away for naps and bedtime. Everyone in the historic village was friendly and accommodating. There is even a children’s museum in Old Salem village that he enjoyed.
Now that my son is older, it is harder for other people to understand his disability. Most of the time he looks normal, and although he may seem odd, people have expectations of him to act appropriately. When he throws a tantrum it can be embarrassing for me. Some people can be rude and not understanding. It is always unnerving for a frustrated parent to encounter museum staff who are rude to them because of their children’s behaviors or needs. My son wants to be normal. It is just hard for him to always act it.
A welcoming smile can go a long way. Some people are just different, and that doesn’t make them bad or hurtful. If museum staff can be welcoming to everyone, no matter how they act or what they look like, it is better for everyone.
We go to the Shelburne Museum “Goes to the Dogs!” event almost every year and we have never had a bad experience, even if my son is having a hard time. Everyone is so understanding and helpful – perhaps it takes a love of dogs to truly understand human nature. I have found that if the museum has a cafeteria or other space where toddlers can run around and bigger kids can sit down and have a bite to eat, or chill out with their electronic devices, it helps the family have downtime before interacting with the museum exhibits again.
What we really look for in a visit to a museum is compassion and engagement. My family is curious, loves history and being engaged and active. We like interactive exhibits, especially when we can play as we learn about history. We enjoyed a recent visit the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and enjoyed learning how to play with toys that were used during colonial times. We appreciate it when the museum staff engage us in conversation, or understand when we need some downtime, or if my son needs some time to cool off from a tantrum.
We all love to learn about history and the world around us, and we are appreciative when the people who work at our museums to facilitate us to do just that.