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 email@example.com. Justin would love to hear from you; email him directly or add comments to this post.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for this! I appreciate your bravery, your honesty and your fresh perspective. The children’s librarian world is only better for having you a part of it. 🙂
Thanks for the kind words! I do dream of the day when a pseudonym will not be necessary.
I think it is wonderful that you enjoy your work and that you also know how to take care of yourself so you don’t get burned out. I hope the day comes soon when you can feel comfortable letting people know you have autism when you are at work.
I think that day is sooner rather than later. I would love someday to have a program at the library aimed at kids on the spectrum – a support group of sorts, though I hate that term. Being out would give that more authenticity.
Ryan M. Williams
Thanks for the post! You’re absolutely right that there should be more acceptance, especially in libraries. I’d love to see more posts. I think it could help.
I definitely want to keep writing . Thanks!
Thank you, Justin. This is a very helpful — and particularly moving! — post. I’m grateful for your willingness to share your experience. I hope this will make me a better librarian to children with autism.
The tricky thing about working with autistic children is that no two are the same. Much of the writing about making things autism friendly tends to focus on sensory issues, or on containing meltdowns. But not every autistic child will be triggered by bright lights, or have meltdowns in public! There are a lot of nuances. I am just one person.
Thank you! My son is 3.5 and hyperlexic. We are a library family and I would love to hear and see more about autistic librarians.
Hopefully you will soon. Thanks!
Thank you so much for posting this. I am a children’s librarian, and my son is on the autism spectrum. I agree with you that the discussion about autism emphasizes challenges too often instead of strengths and that pre-conceived notions about people on the spectrum often don’t hold true. But I really love what you said about books and reading. My son looks at books all day long, but is not a strong reader and struggles with comprehension. His “Scholastic Guided Reading Level” has absolutely nothing to do with the enjoyment he takes from a book. Your library and the young readers you serve are lucky to have you.
Kelly, thanks for your reply and for the kind words!
One question I’d pose to you: is your son truly “not a strong reader,” or is he merely a different kind of reader? Like, does he excel at reading different kinds of books – factual books – that other kids wouldn’t be able to digest?
Thank you for this post. You’ve shed a light on something that isn’t often talked about in the library. We need more brave librarians to forge the way for professionals whose minds work in different ways. Thank you thank you.
Pingback: The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: A Milestone….Hopefully, Just a Start - ALSC Blog
Wow Justin, thanks so much for this post. Thank you so much for the work you do, and for the energy you expend for your young library users. I am so very glad you have a place where you can give so much to the world.
I do hope that you can find a safe way to be open about all of who you are in your library. This is one of the reasons unions can be so important in the workplace. We can be protected from unfair and unjust repercussions when we share who we are.
To be clear, I am a super-protected librarian – I have union and Civil Service protection. My fear is not of getting fired. I also do not work that hard at anonymity – several people within the county library system that my library is part of know. I know that eventually it will be known.
Much of it has to do with the dynamic of my particular workplace, which I don’t want to go into. It also has to do with my fear that it would hurt future job opportunities – I don’t believe I would have been hired for my current / first library job had this been known, for example.
Anyone see the pilot of “The Good Doctor?” I know it’s only a TV show, but hearing a Board of a hospital seriously wonder whether an autistic person could be a surgeon kind of made me think! And doctors are kind of allowed to be jerks. People are very touchy about who gets to work with children…
Check out my latest post – a reaction to the new Temple Grandin picture book biography, with some commentary:
Pingback: An Autistic Children's Librarian's Take on To Siri with Love
Thank you, Justin! I appreciate your blogs greatly. I am autistic and work in an academic library; a lot of your comments feel like they could apply to autistic academic library staff too. More and more adult autistics are realizing and obtaining our diagnoses, even quite late in life; a fair number of folks with autistic kids are in this category too.
The reluctance and fear that many feel about being “out” is terrible, but exists among staff and faculty; even the autistic college students can be reluctant apparently to be “out” in an environment where there are students with so many other identities, visible and often (though not universally) able to discuss their communities with self-confidence and even love.
Are you serious? It seems like such a no-brainer — I cannot imagine a better place for an autistic person to work than in a library! There is order and sense, and immense amounts of information.
An autistic person who knows their library has got to be about the best resource there is! I am thankful for every dedicated librarian who overcomes the difficulty of interpersonal relationships in order to make this wonderful wealth called the library available to me.
My husband and two daughters are ‘on the spectrum’ and routinely astonish and humble me with the patient way they deal with ‘neurotypical’ people who cause them grief. I work in a library and wish I had half the focus and memory for the details involved that they do.
Please accept my heartfelt apologies for those of us who are clumsy and stupid. Like immature children we assume that everyone else experiences exactly what we do. When we find the right questions to ask — like ‘how do you experience this situation?’ or ‘why does that make you anxious?’ – we can build the bridges that help each person do their best.