Blogger Kiera Parrott

Stories on the Spectrum: Adventures in Outreach, Planning, and Programming for Kids with ASD

autismawareness.jpgLast 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)

Books:  The Bus for Us by Suzanne Bloom and Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

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!


  1. Terry Doherty

    Kiera, Your post touched my heart. My daughter is a high-functioning child of ASD. the tools we gained while working with an OT from ages 3 to 5 have been an incredible resource for finding creative ways to engage my daughter with books and reading.

    This is so wonderful … I hope your idea catches fire everywhere!

  2. Tricia Twarogowski

    Kiera, it is SO exciting to see this specialized library service offered at other libraries. At PLCMC in Charlotte, NC we’ve done extensive research over the past year on this type of library programming. At our Matthews Branch specifically, we began presented monthly storytimes for children with special needs and their families in August 2008. We primarily serve children with autism but also children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. We work closely with our families to constantly improve– feedback that we’ve received through surveys and focus groups as well as a partnership with the Autism Society in Mecklenburg County have been vital to establish high quality programming. I would love to share more of our research with you. If you (or other blog readers) are interested, please contact me at Matthews Branch Library. Kudos to you for the work that you’ve done to present a program specific to the autism spectrum. The preparation and dedication that the specialized programs require is returned many times over. It is extremely rewarding to provide this service to a much under-served library population as well as observe the benefits to the children and families who participate in the programs. I would love to imagine the day when programs of this type are offered in many library systems in every state.

  3. Ernie Cox

    This program might be of interest to ALSC members:

    Sunday, July 12th, 10:30 am-12:00 pm
    Serving Students along the Autism Spectrum
    Track: Children & Young Adults; Advocacy
    High functioning students with Aspergers
    syndrome, as well as those with more
    profound Autism, deserve the best library
    service possible. The purpose of this program
    is to help librarians, particularly those
    in school libraries, to serve this challenging
    population. Increased early detection and
    behavioral support for more children along
    the Autism spectrum, as well as increased
    societal awareness of this brain difference,
    make this a timely topic. Participants in this
    program will: gain basic understanding of
    the Autism spectrum, learn about the social
    and educational challenges of students
    with Aspergers, discuss how school library
    programs, services and collections could
    best serve students along the Autism
    Speakers: Alison Ernst

  4. Marilyn Jackson


    If you are looking for other ways to connect – you might want to check with your local recreation department to see if they have any programs that would be a good place to spread the word or perhaps that a program. The county summer program my son attended last summer attempted to get story programs at their sites. She had limited success. I don’t think everyone she contacted in our system was comfortable trying to program with disabled teenagers.

    You might also want to see if there is a local Best Buddies program. This would give you access to older students.

    As a parent of an autism spectrum son, I would say thank you for doing this. Don’t sweat getting everything exactly right for each child -part of going out is learning to go out is learning to adjust to the unexpected. Just being able to go to a program where people understand when your child does something different is really special.

    I hope to be able to do something similar here in Northern Virginia, but with the economy going down there is less enthusiasm for new programing.

  5. Mary

    I’m a reference librarian and a mother of a profoundly autistic 5 yr. old. I appreciate your efforts to reach out to the families of autistic children because it is a condition that isolates the entire family.

    We live in the Chicago area and have many resources at our disposal.

    Public schools. Our pre-K class (5 children each with an aide) visit the library on a regular basis to desensitize the children to the new environment. Each child is free to explore the library in their own way. The school provides van transport.

    Public library. My son likes the fish tank, touch screen computers, and the sensory toys. The library has been wonderful about purchasing materials that help me be a better parent to my son. They are tolerant of his loud vocalizations and occasional running or tantrums. The security guards and staff know us. They know that I’m trying to familiarize my son with the environment and teach him the rules.

    The only program at the library that has worked for us so far has been a game night. My older children could go play DDR or Guitar Hero while my autistic son and I could play with a giant Connect Four or Bean Bag Toss game. We didn’t stay long but I appreciated the outing.

    A successful library program for autistic children will be flexible. A child can walk around, jump, vocalize or whatever they need to do as long as it isn’t dangerous. Bean bag chairs and rocking chairs are good choices.

    Music and musical instruments are popular with my child. He also loves finger plays. So, you are doing a lot of things right.

    Personally, I’d like to see the library have a storytime with a lot of sensory input. Check out the site below.

    Red Kite Project.

    My son craves sensory input. Each child will react to the stimulus in a different way. Some may withdraw. Some may join in for a story with flashlights but withdraw if s/he gets sprinkled with water. Some may dive in with great enthusiasm.

    What if we found classic books and added sensory input or theatrics.

    A story about:
    >trains = give the children cheap wooden train whistles to blow or have them say “choo choo”. (Kind of like speech therapy.)
    >windy day = fan the children (my son didn’t like this at Red Kite but the actor was trained to stop fanning allowing my son to run his fingers along the ridges of the fan)
    >rain = mist the children with a spray bottle, have umbrellas.
    >nighttime = mini flashlights
    >space = countdown and have the children “blast off” from a squatting position or styrofoam asteroids.

    You get the idea. Lots of movement and sensory input. Student volunteers could do this. They would just need to be sensitive to the body language of a child that didn’t want that type of input.

    I hope this helps. Good luck with your programming. Some families may be willing to pay a small fee. We pay $5 to see Red Kite. Families of autistic children are paying $5 to see movies at AMC theaters for their special autism showings. There also might be grants available.

  6. Mary

    My son relies on PECs to communicate. It might be useful to have picture cues for the nonverbal children, especially in the 3-5 yr. olds. “Hello”, “Goodbye” “Stand Up”, “Sit Down”, “Sing”, “Story”, “Listen”, “All Done” etc.

    There are many sites with examples of picture supports. Here is a link to one such site:

  7. Ellen Fader

    Here, in Portland, Oregon at Multnomah County Library, we offer monthly Sensory Storytime for preschool children on the autism spectrum in two of our 17 locations. We started it a few years ago in response to parent requests for a time where they could be with other parents who would be more tolerant of their children’s behavior than those in our other (very crowded) story programs. Parents, grandparents and aides are all welcome, as are any age children who have trouble sitting still in storytime. Each librarian has storyboard software and uses the pictures to orient kids to what will happen during the program. Flexibility is the key: books may be repeated a few times or abandoned if not working. Staff include music, puppets, and sometimes a simple craft activity. The staff tone is calm, concrete, reassuring, and accepting of all behavior except that which hurts others. Parents participate fully to help their children. We’ve networked with local groups so that we can learn about and support teaching methods that are used locally, to gain training and get advice on useful supplies, and to help us market the program. We got the idea when on a site visit to the Mt. Lebanon (PA) Public Library. Naturally, parents are very appreciative that the library offers this service.

  8. lisa Reed

    Does anyone have feedback for the space planning of a library for a school for kids 6-21 with autism? We have 35 kids all over the spectrum, and a new space. I don’t know where to begin to arrange shelving, seating etc to make it inviting and accessable. Thanks!

  9. Pingback: Autism Awareness Month | Light Writes

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