April is only a few short days away–and what an important month it is. National Autism Awareness Month is recognized each year during the month of April to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism prevalence is now one in every 88 children in America, but other studies suggest that the number is even higher. Whatever the exact statistic, the fact is that autism diagnoses are on the rise. That also means that more and more individuals with autism are coming into our libraries. So what are we doing about it?
Storytime is always a great place to start, and the ALSC blog has devoted several posts to developing Sensory Storytimes specially designed for children with autism, including Ashley’s Sensory Storytime: A (brief) How-To Guide, Kiera’s Stories on the Spectrum, and Barbara’s Sensory Storytime. We’ve even learned from Tricia about Going Beyond Sensory Storytime to create school age programs for children with autism. What’s so powerful about our profession is that when we develop new programs or services, we are not afraid to share and learn from each other. I myself have experienced the Ripple Effect in my own community and seen firsthand how libraries are opening their doors to families by developing new and targeted services and programs for children with autism and other special needs. But what else? There has to be more, right?
If you are looking for program ideas, consider this first. Illinois State University has developed a list of 10 guiding principles to consider when developing programming for youth with autism. One of the principles included explains how necessary it is to “evaluate your programming efforts on a continual basis.” As we continue to learn what families with children with autism are looking for in library services, it’s important to gather feedback about what is working and what isn’t. Be open about the fact that your library is always interested in making programs better for families, and encourage parents–whether through more formal means like a survey, or informally through conversation–to share with you. It’s natural for programs to evolve. This is especially important when launching new programs, so don’t be afraid to let parents know that you are responsive to their needs. Don’t miss On the Spectrum @ Your Library from the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog. It offers a unique perspective of library services written by two librarian parents of a child with autism.
Autism Awareness Month presents an opportunity for libraries to bring awareness and start a conversation, which may be as simple as turning on a light. Light It Up Blue is a worldwide campaign dedicated to shining a light on autism by raising awareness during the month of April. Last year, there were even several libraries who joined in on the campaign, including the Geisel Library in San Diego, California and the Highland Park Public Library in Highland Park, Illinois. This idea could be coupled with Light It Up Blue displays featuring resources on autism that are available throughout your library. It will be sure to get your patrons talking.
Hosting a book discussion is another great way to get your patrons talking. This April, our library is hosting a parent/child book discussion on the book Rules by Cynthia Lord. Children in Grades 3 to 6 are invited to read the book ahead of time, and then stop by a local coffee shop for a Friday evening book discussion. Our Friends of the Library generously donated funds to purchase a free paperback copy of Rules for each child registered for the program, so everyone is able to make this important book part of their home library. Not only is this program open to siblings who have a brother or sister with autism, it’s open to anyone who is interested in contributing to the discussion. Be sure to take a look at the book discussion guide the author made available free to download here.
I was particularly inspired by a story I read recently about a mentoring program called “Artism.” At the Lancaster Public Library in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, teen volunteers are paired with children with autism ages five to ten. The buddies meet at the library twice a month to learn and practice social skills while working on art projects. Not only does this inclusive program help raise awareness about autism, it also provides socialization opportunities for children on the spectrum while giving teens the chance to become role models and mentors to other kids in the community. There are so many other programming opportunities for your library, so be sure to take a look at the Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected website for some great ideas.
Speaking of websites, it’s important for us to not neglect our library’s website as an important tool to use for sharing resources with families. Many children with autism need extra support before visiting a new place or experiencing something for the first time. Chicago Public Library’s Library Accessibility Guides are excellent resources for parents. These guides can be downloaded directly from the library website. Parents and caregivers use them to prepare and support individuals with autism and ensure that they have a safe and positive experience at their library. For those children that are more visual learners, a video tour of the library space may be particularly helpful. Take a look at the Skokie Public Library’s video library tour of services for children with special needs available in their Children’s Department. Without even having to enter the doors of the library, families can introduce the library visit to their children so that they can learn what kind of books, toys, and adapted computer equipment is available. And don’t forget app chat! Barbara’s post About Apps and Autism offers many ideas for integrating apps for children with autism in a public library setting.
What else? Leave a note in the comments field about what your library is doing to help serve the autism community more fully. By the way, did you know that Temple Grandin herself will be at this summer’s Annual ALA Conference in Chicago? You surely do not want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Click here for more info!