Policy Discussions

The Policy Discussion page of the blog is meant to provide an online platform to encourage dialogue on library policy issues regarding the treatment of those patrons with ASD or other developmental disabilities, who may exhibit unusual affect or behavior, a lack of attention to hygiene or a meltdown from anxiety or sensory overload. Librarians confront these issues regularly, often without a clear grasp on whether a given situation should be regarded as dangerous, unacceptable or accommodated as a benign manifestation of a neurological difference.

A lack of understanding of non-neurotypical behaviors can easily result in mistreatment and rudeness toward patrons with ASD. Worse yet, easily resolved issues can escalate into full-blown crises, when librarians and public services staff lack the skills needed to effectively interact with patrons on the spectrum. Libraries have a responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); yet compliance with ADA for individualized and “hidden” disabilities, as evidenced with ASD, is not well understood.

In an attempt to break down barriers and help libraries become more inclusive of patrons with neurological differences, please use this page to share your experiences, questions, viewpoints, wisdom.  These are complicated issues and we all benefit greatly from learning about and reacting to real life/real library scenarios.


4 thoughts on “Policy Discussions

    Debi Edmund said:
    June 8, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    I agree with both Russ and Barbara — physical violence or actual threats to do harm must never be tolerated, no matter what a person’s diagnosis is. I would add that autistic behavior can often be misinterpreted when there was no hostile intent on the part of the person with autism. For example, many people with ASD have auditory processing issues which prevent them from judging accurately how loud their speech is and speech may be louder than this person intended. Sensory issues around bright lights can also cause a person to make facial expressions which others mistake for anger. I think it is appropriate to set boundaries such as “no swearing,” but staff may also need to be aware of the possibility of misinterpreting other body language.


    Barbara Klipper said:
    June 7, 2016 at 9:03 am

    In answer to your specific question, the standard of behavior, especially for someone presenting a program, should be the same for a person with ASD as anyone else, in my mind. Especially when it comes to threatening or aggressive behavior. The only allowance I would make for someone with ASD, is to not involve the police if it was at all avoidable (even in a case of physical aggression unless weapons were involved). Police tend not to understand people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses and too many of them end up in the justice system unnecessarily with very tragic outcomes.
    But, whatever the cause of the behavior, you owe it to your other patrons not to subject them to a presenter who could become abusive if thwarted.

    When we talk about accommodations and making allowances, we mean for things like sensory issues (by adjusting lights and noises, removing distractions, etc.) and what appear to be lack of manners (butting in line, standing too close to someone, interrupting others when speaking, speaking too loudly), things that might be annoying but are not hurtful.

    As to the idea of waiting a year…maybe. Not knowing your patron, I can’t guess what he might be able to do over time.

    Hope this helps and that you get some other perspectives from other Forum attendees.


    Anonymous said:
    June 7, 2016 at 8:51 am

    We had an adult patron with autism swear at and threaten a staff member. He did this while trying to convince us to allow him to present a program at the Library. He has contacted me to ask if I would reconsider his request in a year if he can prove he is trustworthy. This brought up a question:
    1. Do you handle patron behavior violations differently when they involve a patrons with special needs? If not knowing boundaries and being aggressive is part of his autism, how do you balance that with that with behaving in a way that makes staff and other patrons feel safe?

    The situation that I experienced is even more complicated because this person wants to present a program at the Library. I don’t know how we could ever ensure that he would not use language or be as aggressive with patrons as he had with me. Any thoughts on this?


      Russ Bonanno said:
      June 7, 2016 at 8:59 am

      This is an interesting situation. I think there are a few separate issues to consider:

      1) Was there actually a threat of physical injury, or did the librarian see the swearing (and I would guess tone of voice) as threatening? In my mind, those are different. If there was an actual threat, that actually constitutes a crime, and regardless of asd should not be acceptable behavior. But if it was that she felt threatened because of swearing and/or tone of voice, that’s a bit more on her than him.

      2) It seems the main question in this case is how to respond to his request about reconsidering his request to present a program in a year, “if he can prove he is trustworthy.” I would say there is no question they should agree to this, and then engage in a discussion about how he might prove he is trustworthy. Since it sounds like he raised the question of reconsideration and the condition of proof, I’d ask him what he has in mind. I believe it could provide a wonderful learning opportunity for the patron and the library staff.

      3) Do you handle situations differently based on condition of patron? I would hope so. This somewhat goes back to (1) — her question is related to “behaving in a way that makes staff and patrons feel safe” which is a pretty nebulous and subjective standard. Loud voices, shouting, rapid movement all can make some people feel unsafe. But, such behaviors are not objectively threatening. When we go back to the issue of “threat” — making an actual threat of harm against an individual is unacceptable, regardless of the situation, and woudl warrant some type of sanction. But looking different, looking dangerous, disheveled, talking to oneself, even the occasional loud comment are likely to make many feel uncomfortable and perhaps even unsafe — yet I would argue none of these warrant any type of sanction (again, regardless of the person’s medical or emotional conditions). There actually have been court rulings that swears and obscene language are 1st amendment protected expression. It only crosses the line when it involves “fighting words.”
      I would also point out that there are conditions that can cause a person to swear without warning or volition, and prohibiting the person’s use of the library in that case would (in my opinion) be a violation of ADA.

      This raises a bit of a larger question – does ASD cause one to “be aggressive” ? Well, not understanding/adhering to boundaries is certainly common in ASD. And sometimes this means continuing to press your position when others would give up. Some people consider that aggressive, while others consider it assertive. I think if the aggressiveness is verbal, doesn’t involve an actual threat, and doesn’t significantly disrupt normal operations, that’s life and you roll with it. When it becomes physical, you respond to it. But just as we try to train first responders — you respond by attempting to defuse and de-escalate the situation. Use calming voice, set clear boundaries (e.g. “do not get any closer to me” or “I can’t discuss this with you unless you can lower your voice” or even “stop. let’s both step back, think about this for 10 minutes, and then we can discuss it again.”).

      4) How will they ever know he is safe? I think a bigger question is “is he actually dangerous?” If he is not dangerous, then he is safe. It seems to me the real issue here is not one of safety at all, but propriety. I’m not sure there is ever a way to know he will not swear or raise his voice if he is challenged or refused something he wants. But if those are the situations where this behavior comes up, what type of presentation is being considered? Is it likely he will be challenged or refused something he wants while presenting? I Have to believe that there are ways to plan and set parameters in advance that would make it extremely unlikely something like this would happen during a time he is presenting, unless he’s presenting on some controversial topic where he is likely to be challenged. Maybe they would consider permitting a “controlled, practice presentation” for some library staff and select others as part of the reconsideration in a year. Just a thought.


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