In the library world, conversations about autism are often predictable. They focus on autistic children or adults as users, and the challenges that they may present. Much less common, it seems, are discussions of the positive contributions that autistic people can make to a library, as library users but also as front-line librarians.
There are many pre-conceived notions out there about autistic people: that we lack empathy, that we are unable to relate to others, the list goes on and on. Lots of things that would make people think that we can’t work with kids. Yet, I’m an autistic man working as a children’s librarian, and there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing.
It was about 18 months ago that I received my autism diagnosis. At that time, I was counseled on the challenges that come with being autistic. For example, we struggle with social demands, and being a children’s librarian clearly carries high social demands. Most of my days include at least six hours of direct contact with the public, often helping high volumes of children and caregivers. I also run several programs that draw large, energetic groups to the library. The work, as a children’s librarian, requires an introvert to climb out of his shell.
Do these activities drain me more than they would a neurotypical person? I imagine that they do. Sometimes, I need to sit in my car for fifteen minutes before I can drive home, as I need to unwind from the day. My mind is not wired for this degree of social stimulation. I love the fact that my job, what I do all day long, is to encourage children to read. I love that we as a society still value leisure reading enough to keep public libraries open, and stocked with robust children’s collections. For me, it is worth it to rise to the challenge; I feel a great deal of positive energy from the work that I do.
My experiences in life as an autistic person color positively how I serve the public. Like many autistic people, I learned to read at a very early age, and I was always considered to have a high “reading level.” Yet, I struggled with comprehension. I struggled to follow complex plot lines, and to understand fantastical elements. I still do, in fact. As a result, I tend to ignore reading levels and any other limits on what children “can” read. I understand that the relationship between book and reader is nuanced, and can’t always be characterized by Scholastic Guided Reading Levels.
As a child, I often preferred to read the same books, repeatedly, as opposed to trying new things. I came to prefer facts and figures to stories and imagination. Yet, in my work as a children’s librarian, I try to nurture and encourage the kids who have the imagination that I don’t. When a parent tells me that they are trying to steer their child away from the fantasy, and get them to read classics or historical fiction, I wish that I could tell that parent how lucky their child is to have such an imagination and that they should let them read all the fantasy that they can!
Over the past 18 months I have wanted, badly, to walk out of the “autism closet.” Yet, I have resisted. I believe that being open about my diagnosis could be beneficial to others, i.e. perhaps a child who has an autism diagnosis will see that they can have a career, and excel at something that isn’t centered on a special interest. What I fear is a lack of acceptance. Indeed, I have been advised by a prominent autism therapist not to reveal my diagnosis at work unless I am looking for special accommodation.
I am not entirely sure how accepted a male, autistic children’s librarian would be in the world of libraries. When the time feels right, I will overcome my fear. I also have an inkling that some of the children on the spectrum who I encounter at work can tell that I am like them. We autistic people often have a “sixth sense,” an uncanny ability to detect others whose minds are like ours. In spite of this sense, I still dream of a day where autism is more comfortably and openly discussed, in the public library and beyond.
(Image licensed under Creative Commons from http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/a/autism.html)
This guest post was written by “Justin Spectrum.” Justin Spectrum is the pseudonym for a youth services librarian in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Justin would love to hear from you; email him directly or add comments to this post.
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