My Experience with an Autistic Student in Museum Education

Multistudio's Lead Researcher Michael Ralph and Senior Associate Jayne Dreyer sit down with Educator and Mathematician Helna Babu August 22, 2022

Our Education Design practice’s passion for and curiosity about education spaces takes us across the nation to learn alongside the educators and researchers who use the spaces we design. At the 2022 UTeach STEM Educators Conference in Austin, Texas, we met Helna Babu, a third-year math major at the University of Florida. She was presenting a project on learning in museum spaces, focusing on her experience with Autistic students in the museum setting. Eager to learn more from her story, we invited her to join Lead Researcher Michael Ralph and Senior Associate Jayne Dreyer in a conversation on inclusive approaches to creating learning experiences in museum spaces.

A critical experience reinforces the importance of well designed spaces in supporting learners

Helna Babu became interested in informal STEM education during her undergraduate preparation to become a K-12 math teacher. She worked closely with an Autistic boy throughout a museum’s summer camp program, which proved to be a powerful opportunity for Helna to learn about the role of learners, teachers, and environments in creating supportive and inclusive museum spaces. Early in the conversation, Helna shared a critical experience with the young learner:

“I had been with them for a week or two… but there was a specific day when we returned from lunch, and he was having a pretty good day. We were working on calming down because they had been outside playing, so they were chilling out.

The theme of that day was architecture, so they were making structures and had a ton of building materials they could work with, like Legos and a lot of different materials that could be used. So they were excited about it, and so were the other kids.

He started working with it, and suddenly, it breaks. And he was a little sad. And I was like, it’s fine. And his friends were also like; it’s okay, so he gives it a go again. And it’s working out. And then a couple of minutes later, that also breaks, everybody’s making mistakes, it’s okay.

He’s like, alright, alright, I’m going to try this again. He tries again. And this time, it also eventually breaks. And he has it basically, and he runs out of the room.”

[This excerpt was edited for brevity and clarity.]

Helna described how the student found a safe place of refuge where he could have some privacy to calm down and debrief his experience. The student shared that he was a bit upset at his experiment’s failure, but more so was frustrated that he couldn’t control his emotional response to the situation in the way that he wanted. This moment was able to play out in a safe place that kept the two of them in contact with the rest of the class group – Helna still had a sightline to the other children and similarly felt seen and engaged with the other educators supporting the camp. The balance of privacy and connection was essential to providing the support her young learner needed at that moment!

The Dialogue

Listen to the full dialogue that both informs and inspires the participants about how they can continue to support all learners through their work. By listening, you will learn more about the role acoustics can play in energizing classrooms without it becoming overwhelming, the ability to overlap common spaces to help students build community beyond their programs, the tactile concerns of making slime, and more. To view the poster Helna presented and that’s referenced in the dialogue, click here.

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