The library should be an open and inviting place for patrons of all shapes and sizes. On a given day, in libraries across America, people can walk, roll, or bring a canine helper to guide them through the library. All are welcome, even those who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This disorder covers a wide range of symptoms from flapping hands (self stimulation) to loud outbursts that are seen as unsocial behaviors. Perhaps the hardest hurdle of serving patrons with Autism is identifying them and knowing how to help them during their library visits.
One of the more popular programs that library offers are story times for toddlers and preschoolers. These programs offer wonderful ways to share the love of reading to a budding young group of readers. It also is a positive reinforcement for family literacy. For parents of autistic children the joy of story times may turn into tears of frustrations. This shouldn't be case because all children deserve the opportunity to find joy in reading and sharing a story. There is a simple solution for autistic children and that is to simply provide a special story time geared for their needs.
First to consider when planning a story time for autistic children is the setting. The room should be dimmed since some Autistic children experience sensory sensitivities. Bright lights may be disturbing to them as well as loud noises. Secondly, do not take their behaviors personally. For example, some children with this disorder may not be able to make eye contact with the person they are speaking to, others may not want to do something as simple as a high-five because they do not like human contact. These children may also rock themselves during a program and seem totally unaware of what is going on around them. In reality, they are drinking in every single word that is said. Librarians must also remember that short simple instructions along with the child's name is an effective method of getting an autistic child to follow the rules of the program. Keeping the group small if possible and invite parents/caregivers to stay for the program should also be considered when implementing the program.
When beginning a story time let children know what to expect for the duration of the program. Simple pictures that will can demonstrate the order of the activities will give these special students a sense of security. When each activity is finished the picture that demonstrates this will be taken down. For example, after the first story has ended, the librarian will go to the "schedule" and take down the picture that represents the librarian and children reading together. This is repeated throughout the program until the very end when all pictures have been taken down. simple songs can also help with the transition of the program. For example, singing to the tune of London Bridges, "First story is over now, over now, over now. First story is over now. Now we will dance." It's simple, it's a tune that everyone recognizes and the children respond positively to the instructions.
Choosing books and crafts for this program is no different then planning one for children without disabilities. One universal rule of reading to all children is if the reader is engaged in the book, the audience will be too. During quite sit down activities, such as listening to a story, allow a child who can not keep their hands still to hold a fidget toy. This can be anything from a small rubber ball to a small stuffed animal. By allowing the toys during he story, it may help some autistic children focus better on the story being told. '
Finally allow the children time for movement that engage the senses to some degree. One activity may include singing or playing a song while the children are encouraged to walk around the room with colorful ribbons. Of course, with adult supervision to keep them from bumping into each other.
This program can be rewarding for everyone involved. Especially for the youth services librarian who has discovered another group of youngsters to share with the joy of a good story. Could the job get any better?