Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


School of Library and information Science

First Advisor

Samantha K. Hastings


Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States. Due to impairments in social interaction and communication, autistic children face challenges in traditional education settings where instruction is based mainly on one-way communication between teachers and students. On the other hand, current research indicates that the museum environment offers opportunities for free-choice, object-based, and inquiry-based learning suitable for the educational and social needs of autistic children. However, there is a paucity of professional literature assessing the impact of such unconventional settings as museums on the learning experience of autistic children.

To narrow this gap in our knowledge, this dissertation investigated the effects of museum cultural experience on learning and behaviors of children with autism, under the theoretical framework of Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning that has been used to examine museum learning in personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts. Structurally, this research was conducted during a series of visits to the Columbia Museum of Art by a group of autistic children selected for participation by specific inclusion and exclusion criteria. Methodologically, the researcher used a mixed methods approach that employed the standardized Social Responsiveness Scale, parent surveys, behavioral observations, task evaluations, and follow-up parent interviews to record changes in the subjects’ content knowledge and behaviors throughout the museum visits.

The findings of the study provided support for its key argument that participation in a tailored educational museum program positively impacts cognitive and social behaviors of children living with autism. This research illuminated the capacity of art museums to contribute to the overall well-being of autistic children by providing a diverse cultural and educational experience that meets their unique needs. Another implication of this study was that it stimulated the dialogue between the autism community and the cultural sector about the role of social justice principles in making museums more inclusive. Finally, the findings of the study intended to help other museums in the region and nationwide to establish quality access programs with long-term benefits for special needs communities.