Child Advocacy

Follow-Up to ALSC Blog Series “Special Needs Programming, Parts 1-5”

by Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski

What a difference a year makes!  After the “Special Needs Programming” five-part blog series, which commenced June 2009, I conducted further research and found inspiration in colleagues around the country who plan and present library programs to children with special needs, primarily children on the autism spectrum. This follow-up entry shares information learned since the original entries were posted and shows how programming adapted as a result for participants at Matthews Branch of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Sensory Programming

In promotional materials, we changed the description to “sensory programming” rather than “storytime for children with special needs.” While families with children on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing disorder and some parents of children with disabilities supported the use of the term “special needs,” sensory programming is a broader term that describes the program rather than the audience.  Using this descriptor lessened the chance of accidentally offending those whom we wished to serve through these programs.

What is sensory programming? Loosely defined, it is a program incorporating components of storytime programs (books, flannels, music)–yet also engaging participants in one or more of the following:  movement, art, messy play, balance, body awareness and other activities which engage the senses. I compiled this definition after reviewing the work of a colleague, Barbara Klipper from the Ferguson Library in Connecticut. If you are interested in providing sensory programming or enriching your current level of programs, Barbara’s recommendation of Carol Stock Kranowitz’s books, including The Out of Sync Child Has Fun:  Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder, is extremely beneficial.  Sensory programming is essentially the programming that I presented since August 2008 at Matthews Branch Library with additional hands-on experiences related to literacy.

Exclusive or Open?

The program remained a separate event from our regular storytime programs because it worked for our community. As noted in the first blog post, the reason we initiated our programming was due to parents’ request for a separate library event. The benefit was the relaxed environment which offered a decreased chance of misunderstanding a child’s behavior during storytime. Multnomah County Library in Oregon offers a monthly separate sensory storytime event also inspired by parent requests that “welcomes children of any age who have trouble sitting still” (Comment on in response to August 2009 feature “The Equal Opportunity Disorder”).

However, other librarians integrate typical-developing children into programs along side of children with autism, sensory processing disorder, Down syndrome and other disabilities. Barbara Klipper opened her sensory program to a broader audience than those with autism, incorporating sensory elements such as Educubes for seating, therabands with songs, use of a sensory balance beam or stepping stones and other sensory experiences for all participants. San Jose Public Library provided a news release in School Library Journal’s December 28, 2009, online issue about “inclusive” story times for families of children from birth to age eight with autism or disabilities. These programs include a pictorial schedule and carpet squares to establish boundaries for the entire audience.

Program Evolution

Program components evolved at Matthews Branch Library as a result of the experience gained while presenting sensory programming. A long-time standard opening song and book combination of Rise and Shine by Raffi was retired in favor of a mellow opening song with limited body movement, “New Way to Say Hello” [recorded by Casablanca] on Exercise Party [CD]. When budget cuts reduced staffing levels, presenting solo rather than with a partner became a new reality. As a result, I began using double visuals in a fresh way–reading a book through once and following with the same flannel story immediately after.

I also incorporated activities from ideas shared from colleagues. One idea, a mirror activity shared by staff of the Public Library of Cincinnati, was a great success. After our “hello song,” I announced the mirror activity. I explained the activity to the parents and asked for their guidance related to their child’s participation. If they indicated that their child did not enjoy looking into a mirror, I would move along to the next child. To the traditional tune of “Where is Thumbkin?” and using my name for sake of example we sing: “Where is Tricia? Where is Tricia? There she is! There she is (point to child); say hello to Tricia, say hello to Tricia (wave at child); Clap your hands!  Clap your hands!” This activity rarely brought discomfort to a child; instead they beamed to see their reflection in the mirror and be greeted by the group. We used a large unbreakable mirror that was originally purchased for use in baby programming.  During an outreach I used a much smaller handheld unbreakable mirror with the same success. The larger size mirrors run from $20 up and are available for purchase from school supply stores.

The Public Library of Cincinnati offers extensive use of adaptive technologies which include bean bag chairs/sitting wedges, air cushions, noise dampening headphones, weighted blankets/snakes, sensory rolls and Big Mack switches. Inspired by their use of technologies in both their outreach department and branches, we purchased a sensory balance beam and a Big Mack switch for use in the sensory programs at Matthews Branch. Both were incorporated into the monthly program plans.

A sensory balance beam is a balance beam with a textured surface. The one that we purchased pieced together either in a circle or a wavy line. Children walk in their socks to experience the sensation of the beam. I set it up prior to the program off to the side or in the back of the room. Because most of the participants follow the pictorial schedule and knew when it was time to use the balance beam, it was not an issue during the other parts of the program. These items are available for around $100.

Big Mack switches are devices that record your voice and allow for re-play when the large button, or “switch,” surface is pushed. A hint about using the Big Mack switch in storytime:  it is a best practice to collect the device after each child’s turn. It became too distracting for the group if it was floating around the circle being passed from family to family. Entering a repeating phrase of a book for re-play thrills the children as they have input to the story that they may not have otherwise. I purchased our Big Mack switch for $105.

Based upon these changes, here is a transportation-themed program plan comparison. Clearly one can see comparatively the increase in hands-on activity of the children from “before” to “after”


Announcements/Review of Schedule Board

Welcome song/book:  Rise and Shine by Raffi

Flannel:  Who’s Coming Down the Road

Book:  Puff-Puff Chugga Chugga by Wormell

Flannel song:  “Toot toot!”

Visuals Song:  “We will Drive All Around”

Book:  Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by Burningham

Song:  “Row Row Row Your Boat “[recorded by the Wiggles] on Racing to the Rainbow [CD]

Book:  The Wheels on the Bus by Zelinsky

Bean Bag song:  “Pass the Bean Bag” [recorded by the Tumble Tots] on Action Songs Vol. 2[CD]

Closing Book:  Wave Good-Bye by Reid

Bubbles with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”[recorded by Elizabeth Mitchell & Lisa Loeb] on Catch the Moon [CD]

Classical Music Mix during coloring/socializing


Announcements/Review of Schedule Board

Welcome Song:  “New Way to Say Hello” [recorded by Casablanca] on Exercise Party [CD]

Mirror Activity  with unbreakable mirror

Flannel:  Who’s Coming Down the Road?

Book:  Puff Puff Chugga-Chugga by Wormell.  I incorporated the Big Mack switch for the repeating phrase of “puff-puff chugga-chugga, puff-puff chugga chugga”

Flannel/song:  “Toot Toot!”

Book:  Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by Burningham

Song:  “Pass the Bean Bag “[recorded by the Tumble Tots] on Action Songs Vol. 2[CD]

Book:  The Boy on the Bus by Dale.  I sang rather than read the book aloud.

Balance beam activity:  Leading children across sensory balance beam while playing “Balance Beam” [recorded by Laurie Berkner] on Rocketship Run [CD]

Closing Book:  Wave Good-Bye by Reid

Bubbles with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”[recorded by Elizabeth Mitchell & Lisa Loeb] on Catch the Moon [CD]

Classical music mix while coloring/socializing


I touched upon partnerships in the final installment of the blog series submitted last year, mentioning the Autism Society of Mecklenburg County as a hugely beneficial partner. Events for the local chapters of the Autism Society were great opportunities to meet parents, therapists and other professionals with experience working with children on the spectrum. One phenomenal channel for our promotion was Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, specifically their Therapeutic Division providing services to individuals who have disabilities. By cross-promoting event information with this division, more families became aware of options to attend library programs, resulting in an attendance increase. I also contacted a local parenting magazine, Charlotte Parent, to share our event dates and times and tapped into the “Carolina Homeschool Connector,” an online information forum for families to increase our exposure to parent-specific promotional routes.


The dream of having enough interest to provide the programs back to back became a reality about nine months after the blog series was posted. A hint: if your programming gets to the point of repeated classes in one day, arrange the schedule cards in the “done” envelope in the order in which you would need to replace them on the schedule board. It saves valuable time between the classes.

Kits were funded through a Bank of America grant, resulting in the creation of five ready-to-go kits contained in a plastic bin and circulating for staff use throughout the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system. Themes included “farm,” “colors” and “transportation.” Each kit housed a suggested program plan, suggestions for music, mirror activity, schedule cards, books, flannel pieces or stories, manipulatives (bean bags or scarves) and, in some cases, puppets.

Creating adaptable books, either by placing three-dimensional objects and/or picture cards into the book or by placing pages in a binder with Velcro objects, was one area that we did not delve into as we had hoped. This is a wide-open opportunity for librarians to incorporate adaptable books into a program environment.

I hope that the original blog series encouraged others to offer sensory programming. Despite budget issues facing libraries everywhere, the value of offering sensory programming as a public service is vital to our communities.

Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski was most recently Children’s Services Supervisor at Matthews Branch Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina. She was named the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Autism Professional of the Year 2009 at the Annual Conference in April 2010 for her work on sensory storytime programming. She recently relocated to Northern Virginia where she shares sensory programming with a new audience of professionals and families in her role as a Library Consultant.  Feel free to contact her at with any questions.

One comment

  1. Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski

    Two things I’d like to add for clarifciation:
    Sensory elements are not included to the extent of overwhelming the senses during the program; instead they add an additional level of sensory experience for participants at points during the program.

    Also, an idea courtesy of Barbara Klipper was the use of a sensory balance beam with Laurie Berkner’s song “Balance Beam” from Rocketship Run.


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