We recently had the pleasure of talking to Julia Riley, Head of Education and Interpretation at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. The Observatory, which is part of The University of Manchester, is home to the 76 metre wide Lovell Telescope and three other active radio telescopes. It was established in 1945 by Bernard Lovell to investigate cosmic rays after his work on radar in the Second World War.
It has since played an important role in the research of meteoroids, quasars, pulsars, and gravitational lenses, and was heavily involved with the tracking of space probes during the Space Race. In 2019, Jodrell Bank was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in recognition of its internationally significant science, heritage and culture.
Jodrell Bank’s Education Team look for ways to interpret and explain the story so that a wide range of people can understand and appreciate the unique turning point that occurred at Jodrell Bank with the emergence of radio astronomy. Keen for their work to be as inclusive as possible, and in particular, autism-friendly, they searched for specialist advice and found the local charity Space4Autism who help and support 4,000 people on the autistic spectrum.
The partnership began with the charity training the entire Jodrell Bank team, remotely over Zoom. Although many of the staff have friends or family members with autism, they hadn’t, as a group, experienced any formal training before so it was invaluable for them to be able to access the expertise of Space4Autism. Their in-depth knowledge and experience empowered the Jodrell Bank team to start thinking about how they could put their learning in to practice.
Their next move was to enlist the members of Space4Autism to act as ‘mystery shoppers’. They invited ten families to experience the visitor journey, from booking tickets online to exploring the Jodrell Bank site, café and shop. In return, they provided the staff with a wealth of insight and feedback including comments on aspects of the visitor experience, from the suitability of exhibition spaces to the navigation of the website, all of which helps inform future developments.
In September, Space4Autism welcomed the Jodrell Bank team to their site in Macclesfield to present some of their interactive science shows -typical of the activity they might offer visitors to Jodrell Bank. They had a great time engaging them with the science of telescopes, stars, and all things space! The sessions helped them understand more clearly the requirements of an autistic audience joining their on-site shows and talks.
Through this fantastic partnership, they now have a deeper understanding of the challenges that people living with autism face every day. They can more clearly see the unintentional barriers that can often make a day trip an intimidating venture for people with autism and their families.
As a direct result of this work, they offered their first autism-friendly early-opening event on Sunday 5th December, opening an hour earlier than usual to offer a dedicated autism-friendly science show and a quiet, chill out space. They’ve also provided a new familiarisation guide to help people prepare in advance of their visit.
Cheryl Simpson at Space4Autism has said, “It’s been wonderful to be able to work with Jodrell Bank over the past 12 months, they have listened and taken note of the feedback our members have given, to make their site more inclusive for people with Autism. Thank you so much for choosing Space4Autism to work on this partnership it’s been fantastic.”
Julia Riley said, “We have already implemented changes such as simplifying the welcome script when people arrive as our mystery shoppers reported finding the information given out too overwhelming, and we’re trialling ‘fidget friendly’ shows in which there’s a very informal, relaxed atmosphere.
We know we will get things wrong and need to adapt, but with the fantastic support from our community partner, we are learning so much and will continue to improve. We are passionate about making a visit here as inclusive as possible and It is so humbling to get the feedback from people saying “thank you for thinking of us”.
This unique partnership has benefited from funding through the ASDC’s Explore Your Universe project. The training was made possible through funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the First Light Project.