Many of us working in public libraries don’t have a background in special education. So, it can be challenging for us to know how best to approach and communicate with a child who has autism. That’s where a partnership with your local school district can be extremely valuable. Special education teachers in our district have been a huge resource for me in this area. They have shared reading materials with me. They’ve given me tips. They even had me into their schools to observe where I could see children with special needs and their teachers interact together in a classroom setting. Adapted from a handout created by The Joint Library and just in time for Autism Awareness Month beginning April 1st, here are some customer service tips I’ve picked up along the way for interacting with a child with autism.
Speaking to a child with autism
- Address the child first, rather than considering the caregiver an intermediary
- Make eye contact, but know that the child may not make eye contact back with you
- Speak directly, slowly, and at a normal tone of voice
- Avoid broad open-ended questions, worrdy instructions, or figurative language
- Give choices when asking a question; ex. “Would you like to read a book, play on the computer, or find a CD?”
- Be patient and give time for language and information to be processed
- Provide a non-verbal way to communicate (pen and paper, picture communication board, or sign language interpreter)
- Rocking, quiet humming, fidgeting, pacing, wiggling are behaviors that are not intrusive to other patrons and usually can be ignored
- Destructive activities, violent tantrums, loud or inappropriate interactions with other patrons are behaviors that should not be ignored
- Redirect attention away from the situation; ex. a quiet study room can help a child calm down if he is having a hard time
- Offer reassurance to other patrons who may be near the situation; ex. “Johnny is upset and is having a difficult day today. All of us have hard days sometimes.”
Relationship building tips
- Be empathetic and offer assistance to the caregiver
- Avoid standing too close or touching the individual — they may have sensitivity to sensory input, like touch
- Give positive reinforcement; ex. “I like how you are putting away the books, Johnny. Good job!”
- Find out what the child likes and see if there is a way to use this to help him enjoy his visits to the library; ex. finding books on a particular subject or helping pass out materials during a program
- Remember that a person with autism is just another person in your library — help them find what they’re looking for as you would anybody else
Did you know that autism now affects on average 1 in every 88 children? April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. Celebrate this global initiative and Light It Up Blue to help bring awareness to autism. Check out this video to see how the world is coming together to #lightitupblue. What are you doing at your library to recognize Autism Awareness Month?
I started doing outreach visits with our county’s special education school last year. This was an area completely out of my experience, so I asked the teachers to give me general hints and suggestions and then after my storytimes and tours with the kids the teachers give me feedback. We take each visit as it comes and work through problems as they arise! This has also helped me in reaching more children, especially autistic children, who now attend our programs and come with their parents to the library. The caregivers know we are welcoming and it’s been great to see the original groups of kids adapt and welcome the autistic children into their group. My Lego Club boys have been especially good with an autistic boy who comes to Lego Club – they admire his building ability and have learned how to ask him simple questions while he has become much more verbal and responds more frequently. A win-win situation all around!
Where is this library that your autistic child is being treated so kindly. I would love to know. My son is autistic and this kind of atmosphere and welcoming could be life changing for all of us.
This is a great blog post which I will share with my partners at the Queens Library. The Joint Library served as a great resource for me when kicking off my training of Children’s Librarians. I have a blog post that might compliment the great tips you provided here.”Tools for Adapting Story Time for Kids with Autism” http://t.co/2QD3aBV6
Please continue your work in making institutions like musems and libraries more inviting institutions for children with special needs
An excellent educational video portraying classic autism is seen on You Tube, titled, “Classic Day with Classic Autism.” It shows a good day. Other videos on this same channel show days where same autistic person is punching self or having seizure activity.
Jennifer, great job with the outreach and thanks for that great book suggestion! I’ll definitely have to take a look at that. Michelle, thanks for sharing my post with your colleague. Your blog post on adapting story time for children with autism is exactly the kind of thing that I love to read about other libraries doing. Kudos to the great work that you do! Helga, I appreciate for the video suggestion. I always try and remember “If you know 1 person with autism, you know 1 person with autism” because behaviors manifest in so much different ways.
Dan Weiss & Meg Kolaya
We’re so glad Renee has shared the resources we developed for our Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected (www.thejointlibrary.org/autism) project. With the new increase in rates reported by the CDC and ongoing research, the issue of how we in libraries can best serve the ASD community continues to be of great importance. Thanks to Renee and to all of you out there who are taking this challange to heart. The library can be the one place in town where families with ASD can go to really be a ‘part’ of their community rather than just ‘in it’.
And thank YOU for creating such a valuable resource for all of us in the library community! So grateful!