Last year, I blogged about doing special class visits with a group of students on the autistic spectrum. At that time, I was working in New York City and got to meet the kids through my relationship with their teacher- a regular library user. Since moving to a new library, I had been itching to do more programming for kids on the spectrum. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain- I simply love working with children who have autism. Whether they are low- or high-functioning, I am continually surprised, inspired, and delighted by their unique way of viewing the world. I couldn’t wait to figure out how I was going to continue to work with this population at a new library, in a new and different community.
But unlike my situation in the city, the suburbs initially proved a more challenging place to do outreach. No public transportation. Not as many over-worked, underpaid special education teachers (or at least not as many who were as vocal and outspoken as I had the pleasure to know in the city) eager to find new and alternative spaces and free programs for their students. I was convinced, however, that children and families in my new community facing the difficulties of autism would be just as in need of library programming as their urban counterparts. In fact, living in a suburban setting, where support groups, community centers, and free programs may not be as widespread as in a major metropolis, can make parents and caregivers feel even more isolated.
I decided to simply dive in and offer a family-centered program. “Stories on the Spectrum” is designed for children between the ages of three and eight who have developmental disorders on the autistic spectrum. I encourage the entire family to attend- mom, dad, aids, grandparents, siblings- basically anyone who wants to come.
As with any new outreach effort and program, I was worried that no one would sign-up. We posted the information on our library website, we wrote a press release for the local papers, and made flyers. But still, I worried. I decided to contact some local and state organizations, such as the Connecticut Austism Society and a local support group for moms of children with special needs. Barely twenty-four hours later, the emails and voicemails started rolling in from moms, teachers, and aids who wanted to know more, wanted to sign-up, or just wanted to voice their support and enthusiasm for the program. I wasn’t too worried anymore.
Perhaps you are wondering, how do you do a program for children with autism? Or what makes it different from any other library program? Or, what makes you the expert, huh?? Well, with regard to the first question, you start with some research, talk to parents and caregivers, listen to the kids, have a good sense of humor, and try, fail, and try again. Generally, the difference between Stories on the Spectrum and other library story programs is in the attention to detail, and the high degree of flexibility you build into the program. Mostly, what counts is making a safe and fun space for both the kids and the adults to interact and lend support to eachother. As far as being an expert, I am far from that. I am learning as I go and will continue to seek out the advice and expertise of educators and parents who work with special needs children every day.
Here is a basic outline of what we did for our first program:
Room setup: You might want to have some soft music playing in the background. (A note on music and other sensory stimulation: I spoke individually with each parent/caregiver at least one week prior to the program to ask about their child- the diagnosis, whether they have any specific “triggers,” if they like (or despise) certain types of music, etc. and then tried to tailor the program and the room based on these discussions).
Try to create “zones” using different types of furniture. We used cushy chairs with pillows, a few hard-backed chairs and floor cushions. Some chairs even faced slightly away from the center of the room, in case children prefered to turn around. I also added “incentives” towards the center of the room to entice them to join in- such as a Mrs. Potatohead, a Slinky, some sensory balls.
Opening song: Hello, Bubble [with bubbles, of course :)]
Fingerplays: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; Itsy Bitsy Spider
Action Song: The Wheels on the Bus (I used the Josh Levine recording)
Sensory Activity: Bubble Painting (Add a few drops of washable paint to blowing bubbles, mix well, and blow onto white paper.)
The bubble painting was a huge hit. The kids had a great time feeling the suds, watching them hit and drip down the paper, and enjoying the sensations with their grown-ups.
A local teacher who works with babies and toddlers with special needs came to observe and asked if I would be willing to do a similar program for very young children on the spectrum (ages three and under). My response: Of course!! Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to do it! Haha! But what a great problem to have.
Any children’s librarians out there who are doing similar programs? I’d love to hear about your own experiences!