Consultant, Advocate andTargeting Autism participant, Adria Nassim, Shares Tips for Making Libraries Autism Friendly for Children

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adria sml

Children in general have an inclination to want to explore their environments but many children with autism struggle with sensory issues which can make integration into an environment difficult.

Some common issues experienced by children with autism:

    • Difficulty with physical touch
    • Dislike of loud noises, may cry, scream
    • Dislike of crowds, busy areas
    • Trouble with change in schedule, transition from one activity to the next
    • Throws temper tantrums beyond expected age
    • May play with toys inappropriately (e.g.,  spin wheels of car)
    • May rock, hum, spin in circles, flap hands when frustrated or overstimulated
    • Difficulty with social interaction
    • Poor eye contact

Consider incorporating several different modalities throughout the children’s department to allow for a more pleasant experience.  Here are some ideas:

    • Water toys and a water table.  These are available in a variety of sizes.   Be sure that the table is tall and wide enough to accommodate children in wheelchairs and orthopedic equipment (e.g., leg braces, walkers).
    • Infants/Toddlers Touch’n Feel Books
    • Story Hour Area: Shag Rug or individual Mats
    • Arts and Crafts: Finger Paint
    • Use of cereal other food items as art
    • Light up pens with marker board
    • Picture and Word Guides Illustrating how to play with toys in library due to difficulty with parallel play
    • Timers on technology and gaming equipment
    • Show “Autism Friendly Films
    • “Provide snacks with at least one gluten free option. Many individuals with ASD are on gluten free diets.

Involving the parents and other caregivers is a important strategy and best practice.  Here are some ideas:

    • Autism email list: Allow parents, caregivers to provide email or phone contact if desired to alert of upcoming changes at library i.e. fire drill, construction, play area closed, etc. This will help to reduce anxiety resulting from unexpected change in routine for the child.
    • Allow for quiet space families can go if child needs to regroup
    • Be aware that some children may struggle with verbal communication and may not readily respond to questions, say thank you, etc.
    • It is very helpful if staff can get to know the families of patrons with disabilities. If they are not verbal, or have limited verbal ability, how best can staff communicate with your child? Alternative Communication Device? ASL? Picture Icons? etc.
    • Find out what the child likes to do?   What are their favorite characters, games or toys?
    • Does the child have tendencies toward dangerous behaviors such as wandering, head banging, and how should staff best assist should such thing occur
    • Consider developing a “Siblings of Autism” hangout night and support group.
    • Consider developing a support group just for parents

Finding community partners is an essential best practice:

    • Partner with local authorities to conduct training on autism recovery.
    • Many individuals with autism are also diagnosed with other conditions such as seizure disorder. Partner with local hospital or pediatric practice to provide a staff training on first aid for seizure disorder.
    • Consider investing in trainings on sign language and various communication methods. There will likely come a time when the individual with autism is separated from his caregiver, and in such case, staff should be ready to assist.

A diverse staff fosters an inclusive library:

  • Be aware that autism and other disabilities can affect children of all ethnic backgrounds. Seek employees who have backgrounds in world languages, this includes sign language and those who also may have experience with people with various disabilities.   Sample interview questions:
    • Do you have experience with any world languages including American Sign Language? (ASL) If yes, please state level of proficiency.
    •  Have you had prior experience serving people with disabilities? If yes in what context?

Don’t forget about bathroom issues!

  • Also be mindful that many children with autism and other disabilities may have difficulty with potty training. This may remain an issue for quite some time.  Another way to assist families of patrons with disabilities is to consider stocking restrooms with diapers and Pull Ups of various sizes and designs appropriate to either gender   (e.g., Good Nites, Depends, as well as traditional Pull Ups and diapers). THIS SHOULD APPLY TO ALL RESTROOMS.

Sometimes, there is just no substitute for a dog!

  • Consider contacting the local humane society and asking about the possibility of a Read to a Dog program. Many children with autism will bond/socialize more readily with animals than people. This can also be a great way to further social skills, speech and language development by allowing the child to pet, read to dog or listen as story is read and could be a good trial run for parents looking into getting a service dog or pet for the child.
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