Unlocking Potential: Innovative Library Programs Enhancing the Lives of Autistic Individuals

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Updated on May 7, 2024
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Autism is a neurological disorder that affects social developmental growth. Autism causes behavioral challenges, communication handicaps, and other learning disabilities. An individual with autism can vary greatly in symptoms from another individual with autism. Those who struggle with autism can be handicapped to the point where they remain non-verbal, or they will only struggle in specific social situations and excel in other areas. For families of autistic individuals, the behavioral issues can become overwhelming. Autistic children, and some autistic adults, require extra supervision, and for the majority of their lives, they may require a full-time caregiver. If family members cannot care for them, then the cost of a caregiver may be a financial burden. Those who can care for their autistic loved ones need support for the emotional and mental burnout they develop. Safe spaces and helpful programs for the family and friends of autistic individuals and their autistic loved ones are priceless.

Libraries and other community resources can be a space for people with autism and their families and some can provide services and special programs for their autistic community. Autistic individuals are more likely to visit a public library than any other group and those with autism who do go to the library visit libraries twice as often. However, an autistic individual can feel shamed by those who do not understand their strange behavior or may become overstimulated by the library’s environment. Many autistic individuals and their family members say what would be the most helpful is for library staff to be understanding and know to look out for signs that someone may struggle with autism. Another simple step libraries can take is connecting autistic individuals and their caretakers to other community resources. When the opportunity comes, libraries can add additional services and resources to cater to their autistic population.

This article will cover the various library programs public libraries can implement for autistic library users and their caregivers. It will also cover the needs of these programs and the positive impact they can have on a community. There are various ways to provide services and programs for those with autism and many of them require little funds. Most of the good libraries can do is educate themselves, and this article is a great place to start.

Understanding the Needs of Autistic Library Patrons

There is a wide spectrum of autism and a great diversity of symptoms for those who struggle with it. Some signs and symptoms of autism include a lack of eye contact, appearing to not listen to anyone who is speaking, difficulty with participating in back-and-forth communication, slow to respond or not responding to their name or other attention cues, using an abnormal tone of voice, difficulty making friends and participating in imaginative play, exhibiting facial expressions or hand motions that do not reflect their circumstance, and having difficulty with adjusting their behavior. Some people with autism are non-verbal and are not able to care for themselves, while others are considered “high functioning” and can interact in some social situations and are extremely good in their field of interest. Despite common drawbacks, they have some strengths and can learn social skills and how to control behaviors.

A library can create inclusive, welcoming, and supportive environments to begin helping their autistic community. Some simple ways to create this environment include being tolerant of behavioral challenges, asking them how you can help, providing a safe and quiet area when they become overstimulated, creating a fun play area that isn’t just for toddlers, and installing soft lighting. Signage can also mark the library as a welcoming environment for autistic individuals. Libraries can post signs that say “autism-friendly” and other signs with information about autism for other library users who want to become more sensitive to those with autism. Additionally, learning how to communicate and interact with individuals with autism can make them feel welcome. Some basic communication tools include avoiding open-ended questions like “What book would you like?”. Instead, library staff can ask more direct yes-or-no questions like “Would you like to look at the new fiction books in the children’s section?”. Individuals with autism also feel more welcome when you learn their names and talk directly to them rather than the person they are with.

Libraries can offer autistic-friendly spaces to reduce the anxiety of becoming overstimulated. An autistic-friendly space will be quiet, have lighting that is not harsh or too bright, and be tolerant of odd behavior as long as they are not harming anyone or themselves. For those libraries that cannot provide a quiet space for the whole library, it is best to offer a quiet area. Preferably, autistic-friendly libraries will have a quiet room with computers and sitting areas. Additionally, having a fun, playful area with colorful chairs, rugs, and other sensory objects that anyone can enjoy is great for adults with autism who may not feel comfortable in a children’s area.

Autistic individuals can easily become overstimulated and do best when they can take their time on an activity. Libraries can offer separate library programs for those with autism. They can offer slow-paced storytimes, simple crafts, and sensory play. Sensory play ideas can include playing with foam blocks or colorful scarves, scooping toy dinosaurs out of colorful beans, and playing with zippers pasted onto a board. Storytimes for autistic children include keeping things simple, using key cards to show what is going to happen next, keeping the same routine for every storytime, and not worrying about kids who appear to not pay attention.

Libraries and Programs Designed for Autistic Patrons

Plano Public Library is a library system that has created an entire set of programs and services for autistic library users. They call their autistic-friendly programs SNAP so that caregivers and autistic individuals will know that the program is either for children or others with autism or is at least created to be inclusive. One SNAP program started as a sensory storytime but is now a SNAP storytime. They also added a SNAP preschool storytime, a family SNAP storytime for all ages, and a STEAM Saturday just for their SNAP program, and they began hosting movie showings for SNAP, which include movies that are autism-friendly and sensory-sensitive.

Another autistic-friendly program that has become widely successful among libraries and businesses, is “quiet hours”. A quiet hour is a specific time for autistic individuals to visit the library. For the quiet hour, staff will dim the lights, turn down any excessive noise– like beeping sounds at a check-out station, and post signs that say it is a quiet hour so that library users know to keep their voices down. This is a great idea for libraries that do not have separate rooms or areas for quiet. It allows time for autistic users to enjoy the library without being overly stimulated. Many people assume libraries are always quiet, but most public libraries host storytimes and other programs that involve additional noise, and library staff must talk to library users to help them.

The Impact of These Programs

Individuals with autism need places where they can feel safe away from their homes, and a place where they can connect with others and make new relationships. Other common places are overwhelming for them, like coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and parks, because they are often too loud, and bright, and allow for multiple distractions. However, in a quiet space, they can feel safe. Autistic individuals can have a space where they feel accepted, that they can use to get work accomplished, and to meet new people. And when they are connecting with others, other people learn about autism. This will bring awareness to the community, which in turn can inspire others to create autism-friendly spaces and activities. Then this creates a closer community.

These programs help people with autism in various ways. All programs help them grow social skills and learn to interact with other people. Storytimes and other educational programs help them build fundamental skills like reading and counting. Programs also introduce them to new subjects, which can lead them to something they love to do, and can develop strong specific skills. For example, a class that teaches basic coding may open a door for someone with autism who has a gift for computer science.

How Libraries Can Implement Similar Programs

Libraries and library systems that want to become autism-friendly can start by becoming educated on the challenges people with autism face and ways they can help. There are seminars and other presentations done at international conferences every year, including the ALA conference (the ALA also accredits library science programs), that are specific to this subject, and there are online courses that library staff can take. The following are some resources that can be helpful to libraries:

Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit

Libraries and Autism

Helping Libraries to be Autism Ready

Library Resources for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Other practical steps libraries can take include posting autism-friendly signage, which includes signs for autistic individuals to feel more welcome and aware of what services are available, and educating other library users who are interested in understanding autism. One other simple step is to add a map of the library online and post it at the entrance of the library. This one step is helpful because individuals with autism like to know where everything is and what is available before going to a new place. It makes their first visit less overwhelming.

Some other ideas for serving the autistic community include putting together a program specific to individuals with autism and to advertise it throughout the community. These programs are also a great way to pull in library volunteers from the community. Volunteers can help with spreading the word and assisting with the programs. Additionally, a library can host a workshop or class to support caregivers of those with autism. At these events, or whenever possible, it is great when social workers and counselors are available for caregivers. There may be social works and non-profit organizations in the area looking for outreach opportunities, and libraries are a great place for them to build connections with families who need their support and expertise.

The Future of Libraries and Autism Support

The School of Information at the University of Washington recently conducted new research about autistic library users at academic libraries. Their research helped form a free online resource called the Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit. It aids libraries across the U.S. with research-based information and strategies for creating an autism-friendly environment, inclusive programs, and how library staff can communicate with autistic individuals. Research like this and the information it provides libraries is necessary for helping more communities and those with autism, now and in the future. The world is changing every day, and this brings different challenges, but also more opportunities.

One obvious change in our culture is the growth of technology. This can be an overwhelming challenge for autistic individuals to overcome, but it can be a help. There are plenty of computer applications and assistance devices designed to help autistic individuals. This can be expensive for some communities, libraries, and school systems, but there are ways to find funds.

The more people are aware of the challenges autistic individuals face and how we can help, the more people will give their time and money. This is how funds have come into existence. This is how organizations have started new programs; this is how businesses have learned how to be more inclusive; and this is how communities have grown stronger. A lot of good can come from one more library starting one program. And a lot can come from simply learning about what we can do to make autistic library users feel more welcome.