Making the Aspen Art Museum accessible to people with autism |

Making the Aspen Art Museum accessible to people with autism

Andrew Travers
For the Aspen Times Weekly


Thursday, April 4

4 p.m. Story Art: Carbondale, Carbondale Branch Library

5 p.m. Legacy Series, Ingrid Schaffner, Aspen Art Museum

Saturday, April 6

10 a.m. Family Workshops co-presented with Ascendigo Autism Services, Aspen Art Museum

1 p.m. Guided Tour

April 9

4 p.m. Artists in the Making: Middle School, Aspen Youth Center

April 10

1 p.m. Guided Tour, Aspen Art Museum

2:30 p.m. Art Studio: Kindergarten to 4th Grade, Aspen Art Museum

The Aspen Art Museum has long touted the fact that its admission is free and that it is open to the public six days a week. But keeping the doors open to all isn’t enough to make all feel welcome, the contemporary art institution’s leaders concluded several years ago as it embarked on a rigorous initiative aimed at providing access to everyone.

To reach people with autism, the museum since 2017 has implemented sensory-friendly experiences in its galleries along with workshops and social gatherings.

“This group is particularly marginalized,” said Annie Henninger, who oversees the museum’s autism program. “Their voices aren’t heard. So by them being here, by listening to them and by experiencing the artwork they produce, I think their voices are being heard.”

On a recent afternoon, Henninger led a group of five young men with autism through a printmaking workshop at the museum. Inspired by the surfer girl imagery in Margaret Kilgallen’s exhibition “that’s where the beauty is,” she invited them to think of an image that made them happy, then coached them through the process of imprinting it on a Styrofoam plate with a pencil tip, rolling out paint on it, and stamping it on thick stock paper.

With some coaching and encouragement from museum staff and Ascendigo Autism Services skills trainers, they had soon hung on the wall prints of a sun, of coffee steam, of a Coke, of a cat. There were cheers and high-fives, then a walk through the Kilgallen show, followed by drinks at the museum’s rooftop café.

“For the guys who are artistically inclined it’s a great outlet,” said Richard Beutner, the vocational manager for Ascendigo. “Part of our mission is to help this population have every opportunity that you and I would have coming to the museum, whether it’s producing art, seeing the exhibits or just having a nice place to have a cup of coffee.”


Ascendigo’s Life Enrichment Group comes to the museum once a month.

The museum dedicates staff members to teach the workshops, but also changes the exhibition space itself. On days when the group visits, for instance, lights in the galleries are turned off to make the space welcoming for a segment of the public who is often sensitive to sound and light.

It’s worth noting that the galleries remained open to the public during these times, making the general population experience a gallery dimmed to accommodate autistic patrons, reversing the standard in nearly all public spaces where people on the spectrum are expected to navigate a world that’s not designed for them.

“We think about access as a comprehensive topic,” said Michelle Dezember, the museum’s chief program officer. “That touches not only how to create access to often challenging exhibitions, but also how to create access for communities or individuals that might, for various reasons, think ‘The museum is not for me,’ ‘I’m too noisy,’ ‘My group is too big,’ ‘I’m not the typical museum-goer.’ We want to eradicate what the ‘typical museum-goer’ is.”

The museum is thinking about accessibility in terms far broader than the minimum mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To reach people on the autism spectrum, that has meant teaming with Ascendigo, the innovative Carbondale-based nonprofit that provides experiential learning for kids and adults on the spectrum. Such partnerships have been integral to a radical shift in thinking about access.

“For us to become a more open and more diverse institution, we need to rely on community knowledge,” Dezember explained.

Ascendigo is one of a dizzying list of 53 western Colorado organizations the museum is currently partnering with for education and access programs. Other marginalized local populations the museum has sought out include the Spanish-speaking community through workshops run with La Tricolor Radio, young addicts through the Youth Recovery Center and the incarcerated through the Pitkin County Jail. (In 2017, the museum’s service efforts made it one of 10 institutions honored with the National Medal for Museum and Library Service by the Institute for Museum and Library Studies).

The museum brought in a consultant from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2017 to evaluate the Aspen Art Museum’s accessibility. Their recommendations led to the formation of an Access Community Advisory Council made up of eight people with disabilities or with loved ones who do. The museum has deferred to them for new ideas and to identify shortcomings on accessibility.

“The committee helps us to do things that we are maybe nervous to do on our own,” Dezember said.

The first autism-specific program was a “low-stimulation family workshop” that fall, and by spring 2018 the museum was hosting the monthly workshop.


Sometimes for visitors with autism, Henninger and Dezember explained, just coming through the door is a success. Or saying “hello” when the guide at the front desk does so. The Life Enrichment Group has been coming for a year, so they are used to the space and accustomed to the creative and social aspects of their days in the museum.

During the March workshop, all five of the participants made prints and walked around the museum and sat together for a pleasant post-workshop coffee on the rooftop.

The Ascendigo skills trainers and clients function as teams of two, bonded together in trust and patience. The five men in the group live together at the Yellow House, a Carbondale home for adults with autism aimed at providing independence. (The residential program opened in 2015 and, due to its success and increased demand from the growing number of adults with autism, Ascendigo is planning to add three more residential homes in the valley.)

Ascendigo’s Life Enrichment program shepherds these young men into varied environments, aiming to develop new skills by adapting to potentially challenging public environments and activities.

The group also does action sports like wakeboarding and skiing (Ascendigo has a five-person staff dedicated to “adventures”) and outings like a recent trip to Denver for the Casa Bonita restaurant and the Jurassic Quest interactive dinosaur event. So, the museum program isn’t a traditional art therapy session, it is more of a social and situational adventure.

“Even the guys who struggle with art are learning skills that are applicable everywhere,” Beutner said.

The skills trainer’s role is to accompany these young men through a world that’s not designed for them. They know their clients well enough to anticipate needs they can’t verbalize. Most use talk boxes — digital tablets that present emoji-like choices to help them communicate.

Some are artists, some enjoy navigating the galleries and looking at the exhibitions, others simply look forward to the time in the café.

Max loves the building itself, navigating its grand staircases and gallery halls. Making a lap in the Kilgallen show, Max was reluctant to leave when his skills trainer started moving on.

“Keep looking,” he repeated.

Kevin adores movies. On our afternoon in the café, he was “scripting” and repeating lines of dialogue from one. But given the choice to go see the new “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel or come to the museum, he chose the museum. Henninger, knowing of Kevin’s cinephilia, said her heart was warmed by this news.

“Kevin has improved spectacularly over the year,” his skills trainer, Kelsey Shenklin, said, noting that he’s grown less anxious and engages in less self-injurious behaviors while at the museum.

Tyler is an accomplished artist who has sold paintings and had his designs used for T-shirts. He regularly sells small prints and postcards, which have become among Ascendigo’s best-sellers at their Carbondale farmers’ market stand.

In the printmaking workshop, he painstakingly drew a cat’s face. And when the rest of the group moved from the workshop to the galleries, he stayed behind to perfect his print.

“He is super meticulous,” said Tyler’s skills trainer Jon Manuell. “He has a very artistic eye. He knows what needs to be where. He pays so much attention to what he is doing — it’s amazing what he comes up with in all aspects of art.”

Fine-tuned to artistic detail and aesthetics across disciplines, he makes representative works like the cat, but also creates abstracts and pottery (the Yellow House crew does a weekly clay class in Carbondale).

Up in the café after Tyler had finished his print, while sipping a hot tea and sharing a table with the group, he picked up a blank postcard and colored pencils and, with casual confidence chipped away at an intricate line drawing.

“Whatever is going on in his mind, he’s able to make some clarity of it in his art,” Manuell said. “Art is an awesome way to use voice in a different way and communicate in a different way. It’s really good to be here.”


The Aspen Art Museum itself has learned from the Ascendigo group.

For example, as they began addressing the access issue, Henninger wrote what the museum calls a “social story” aimed at people on the spectrum — a hand-out that outlines, in gentle terms, what to expect when you walk through the doors of the museum. It’s turned out to be a helpful guiding document for the general public.

And education practices they learned from the autism group — like starting programs with some silence, prioritizing calm, not overloading visitors with information on the art — now has been integrated into public tours and school visits.

“You can miss the human connection,” Dezember said. “I think it’s reminded us to be present with people, to not make assumptions about what someone might know or want to do in the museum space.”

For Autism Awareness Month, Ascendigo is co-sponsoring the museum’s family workshop April 6, which will bring together people with autism and without for art-making projects.

The access initiative also has brought new voices into the museum’s decision-making and new insights that are shaping its future.

“We have a lot to learn and a lot to gain by partnering with Ascendigo and other organizations,” Henninger said. “We start with inclusion and everyone benefits — not only people with special needs or people with autism. … I learn from the clients and the coaches every single time.”

For the Ascendigo group, it’s difficult to quantify the benefit of their time in the museum. Though sometimes, the clients make it clear enough. As Max headed down the stairs, for instance, his coach asked him if he wanted to come back.

Without hesitation, he said: “Yes.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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