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MOCA Launches New Virtual Art Aviators Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

MOCA Launches New Virtual Art Aviators Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

April 28, 2021 // by MOCA Staff

made possible Through a partnership with the North Florida School for Special Education, plus in-person Family Workshops return this fall

Art Aviators (young boy finger painting)


This spring, MOCA Jacksonville partnered with the North Florida School for Special Education (NFSSE) and delivered Art Aviators programs to hundreds of students through a contract with The Kennedy Center. For over a decade, the museum has served over a thousand families with our Art Aviators program, an educational initiative designed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other exceptionalities. While children with ASD struggle with verbal communication, social relations, and sensory development, creative art-making activities enable them to foster new means of self-expression and communication. MOCA's program operates in two formats: monthly Family Workshops and in partnership with schools to serve large groups of students. Both programs incorporate gallery tours of MOCA's current exhibitions, hands-on art lessons, and sensory activities.

The students of NFSSE participated a pilot of a virtual rendition of the Art Aviators program, which included a tour of the museum, art kits designed specifically to meet children's needs, a dynamic art activity and a sensory sculpture. MOCA hopes to continue this partnership with NFSSE for the next school year in 2021 - 2022 to provide dynamic special education art programs for their students.

We are also excited to announce that in the fall, the museum will again provide monthly in-person Art Aviator Family Workshops. These workshops work to bring children and their parents or caregivers, and siblings together by helping them explore processes and mediums that can be overwhelming or difficult to execute in a home setting. The lessons are designed to be easy to replicate, so if there is something that sticks it can easily be incorporated at home.

“We have heard from many Art Aviators families that they have introduced a material or process at home that they were first exposed to during a program,” says Kiersten Barnes, J. Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver Educator for Family and Children's Programs. “For example, we introduced a lesson with salt dough and there was a boy that loved sculpting with it. During the next session, the boy told us that his family recreated the recipe at home, and he even tricked someone in his family into thinking it was a sugar cookie dough! This family was able to take home a really simple lesson that can be used again and again as a tactile sensory experience.”

Art Aviators (long shot family and Tony)


Unlike many programs that are designed just for children with exceptionalities, Art Aviators Family Workshops bring the entire family together providing the opportunity for families within the ASD community to meet and connect. Not only do the students get the opportunity to learn and open up, but caregivers also often find enjoyment in participating in the projects themselves. The program provides the chance to have fun and be creative in a low stakes environment where the caregivers and children can bond. Plus, the families often bond with each other. “We have witnessed caregivers talk about their child's diagnosis with ASD, talk about their experience with schooling, and share resources with each other to be better connected with the ASD community in Jacksonville,” Barnes says. 

The workshops are also beneficial in that they provide the students the opportunity to navigate new spaces and experiences with someone they trust-someone who knows their needs and can help MOCA's education team understand them better as individuals.

“We have one boy who regularly attends our Art Aviators Family Workshops, and he is very interested in keeping a routine,” explains Barnes. “When he arrives at MOCA he will walk upstairs through the galleries all the way to the fifth floor until he reaches the workshops. He follows the same path every time. At first, he would only come into the workshops to see the activities and then he would be ready to leave. He and his family kept coming to the sessions each month and after increasing his exposure to the program's format, this boy would start to spend more and more time with us in the workshop. First, he would create a quick drawing before leaving. Then he would interact with the lessons we had set up for a few minutes. It was so rewarding for us to build familiarity with this boy and see him be more open to spending more time in the workshop, doing activities with staff and the other students.”

Art Aviators (overhead of young boy painting)

While some students are given the time they need to become comfortable with the program, others thrive off the creative opportunities. “One of our regular participants to the Art Aviators Family Workshops was in attendance the day we allowed them to paint on a giant canvas we had set up in the classroom. Some of the students clearly had specific images in mind, but this one little boy was more interested in the movement of painting; he hopped, he slashed, he scribbled, and at one point he even stood on a chair behind the canvas to paint near the top-only his arm was visible. His joy and excitement were so evident and infectious, it was truly a pleasure to be a part of!” says Lindsay Bowyer, Museum Educator.

Art Aviators Family Workshops will be returning for in-person sessions starting in November 2021. Monthly workshops will be hosted on-site at MOCA Jacksonville for up to 10 children with ASD and their families. Families will explore the galleries, create art, and participate in sensory activities. There is no cost to attend but space is limited. Registration will open in September 2021 on our website.

“I really enjoy the creative challenge of catering to all expressions of the autism spectrum,” Bowyer says. “No two students are alike, and while we design the program with commonalities in mind (sensory/tactile needs and interests, etc.), we learn something through every single session. Sometimes it's what works versus what doesn't, sometimes it's something unique to a student that we haven't encountered before that we integrate into future programming. The enrichment flows in both directions!”


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