There are many of us in youth services that cannot afford the time, the staff, or the funds to create new programs specifically for children with special needs. At the same time, we want to be able to welcome the growing number of children with disabilities to our libraries. The reality is that visiting a new place for the first time can be stressful for children with developmental disorders, and this anxiety may be enough to keep those children and their families at home. What can libraries do, then, to support those with special needs who are walking through our doors for the very first time?
While I was planning my first special needs storytime, someone shared with me a link to the Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected website. This online resource promotes “best practices and universal service for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families helping staff to improve their ability to provide excellent, inclusive, universal customer service to everyone who uses the library.” On this website, you will find links to programming ideas, strategies that work, training videos for staff, blogs posts, and articles about serving individuals with autism in libraries. But when I saw the template for “This is my Library” social story, I knew I had found a gem. We as librarians are such natural storytellers, but it didn’t occur to me that telling the story of a first library visit could be so valuable to a child with special needs.
When a child makes his first visit to the library, there are new sights to see, new sounds to hear, a new layout to learn, and new faces to meet. There is also a list of new expectations for behavior as well. Without the proper support, a child with a developmental disorder could easily become anxious, frustrated, or upset stepping into this environment for the first time. But with a social story, a child gains visual familiarity with an experience so that he can feel comfortable and confident before he is faced with the situation first-hand. These stories are tools that help pre-teach the structure and routine of what a new concept or experience will be like, and are used often with children with autism or other developmental disorders. On the Use These Resources page of the Libraries and Autism website, you will find a downloadable template for a “This is my Library” social story, which can be used to tell the story of your own individual library. Not only is this customizable book free, it has been designed to allow libraries to easily insert their own pictures and text in order to develop a personalized “library tour.” A quick tip: posting your library social story on your website can allow for families to upload it at their leisure and read it as many times as they want.
Beyond library tours, there are many other applications of this social story tool. Checking out books, asking for help, or logging on to the computer are a few routines that could be taught in a library-related social story. If you know ahead of time that a child with autism is attending one of your programs, talk with the child’s parent and ask if a social story would help support his attendance. For those that utilize therapy dogs in a library program, having a social story called “Dog Safety” would be helpful for those that need to learn how to approach and interact with a dog. If you are leading a book discussion, create a social story for the child called “Going to a Book Discussion.” This social story can outline behaviors that are expected of attendees (raising your hand before speaking, one person speaks at a time, using quiet voice, etc.), as well as other activities that will take place during the program.
For another “This Is My Library” sample social story, check out the Parent/Teacher Resources Page on the Deerfield Public Library website.