The International Spy Museum is giving adults with autism a night of their own

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The day Aaron Bretzfelder went to International Spy Museum with the cool aspiesa neurodiverse young adult club in Northern Virginia, he felt anxious and had trouble concentrating on exhibits.

“It was loud and crowded inside,” recalled the 33-year-old, who has autism. He couldn’t talk to his friends because of the noise or even see where they were sometimes. He also felt rushed as he stood in front of the screens that provide interactive experiences. “On a normal day, they only give you two or three minutes.”

Some of Bretzfelder’s other club members had decided not to attend that day, predicting that the museum would be too overwhelming. A few others decided to go, but then felt too uncomfortable to stay.

Bretzfelder was among the members who walked through the exhibits and then met with museum staff to offer suggestions on how to improve the experience for adults with autism.

“I appreciated that,” Bretzfelder said of how the staff asked for feedback and then listened.

On Sunday evening, the Spy Museum will hold its first sensory program for adults. That night, Bretzfelder and others will be able to walk through the building without encountering loud noises, large crowds, or extreme lighting. They will also not have to share the space with the children.

Very often, when places offer sensory events, they are designed for families and children. But what makes Sunday’s event unique is that it recognizes that autistic children grow up and have their own needs and wants as adults. That night they can eat and drink during a social hour, meet a former spy and participate in an adult-friendly scavenger hunt. The museum will also make a rest room available to anyone who needs it.

“What could be an impossible visit during normal opening hours is now a possible mission!” bed one the description of the event on the museum’s website.

The Spy Museum is a place that explores the history of espionage and showcases top secret gadgets, but to make this Sunday event happen, it took openness. The museum had to listen to adults with autism.

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Lucy Stirn, the museum’s director of youth education, said staff had been hosting sensory events for children and families since 2016, and started talking about hosting one for adults as well before the pandemic.

“We were getting a ton of emails saying, ‘Why don’t you make this an adults only? We are also part of the community,” she said. “And I completely agree with them.”

Stirn said the search for a sponsor to fund the event, which requires the museum to remain open after hours and fully staffed, did not happen within the time frame they were aiming. But the museum was so keen for that to happen, she said, that the staff decided to go ahead with holding focus groups and planning the night.

“We decided to do this, let’s try this,” she said. “We saw that the need was there.

A testament to the demand, she said, is what happened when the museum opened registration for the free event. Every ticket was quickly claimed. A total of 450 people registered.

Stirn doesn’t expect all 450 people to show up. She understands that some people may not feel ready to attend at the last minute or they may walk in the door and decide to walk away. But staff have tried to narrow down the number of potential triggers a person might encounter that night, and they’ve created a guide to let attendees know what to expect.

Working with autistic children, Stirn has seen how certain parts of the museum can delight one person and upset another. In the hall is an Aston Martin DB5 from the James Bond film “Goldfinger”. The tires spin, the license plate flips, and other movements bring the sound of a shot. Elevators can also be difficult for some people. The lights go out and the red and blue lights flash. A recorded voice then relays a message which includes the phrase “We will be watching you”.

Before planning the event, the museum gathered advice from several groups, and after that the staff plan to offer surveys to find out what worked and what they could do differently.

“I just hope we can do more, and that other places will think about this community and offer similar things in the future,” Stirn said.

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Deborah Hammer, who runs Cool Aspies and works for Arlington County Public Schools, said about 22 club members visited the museum earlier in the year to serve as a focus group. While there, she saw two members leave and others cover their ears. She also received text messages from members who were in the same room as her but got nervous when they couldn’t see her through the crowd.

Then, she says, the group spent about an hour and a half talking to museum staff. One of their suggestions was that the evening should give attendees a chance to talk and meet new people. The social hour will provide them with the space and time to do so.

“I think it’s really important to provide spaces for neurodivergent adults to have differentiated experiences because they still want to enjoy happenings in the community,” Hammer said. “Just because they’re 18+ doesn’t mean they want to stop experiencing all that we have to offer in the DC area.”

Members who felt uncomfortable on the first visit will return on Sunday because they know it will be a different experience, she said.

“People are very excited about it,” she said. “There aren’t many opportunities like this.”

One of the people from the group who will be present is Bretzfelder. He says he is excited about the social hour and already knows what he will ask the spy who attends: what country did he gather information about?

Another Cool Aspies member planning to go is Aaron Lagunoff. The 27-year-old spends his weekdays doing guard work in the FBI building, which puts him close to people who have done intelligence and law enforcement work. At the museum, he assumes this role himself: the guests receive a spy character and a mission.

Lagunoff said he can’t wait to enter that world again — this time, in an environment that makes his friends more comfortable.

“I think it’s going to be a really fun experience,” he said. “I actually think it’s important because a lot of neurodiverse people don’t really get to experience nighttime events, especially in a museum.”

He also highlighted how the museum’s actions offer a lesson for other places that want to be more inclusive.

“I think listening to people and hearing people talk and give feedback or advice is actually a really good strategy,” he said. “Not just at the spy museum.”

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