Making your programs more inclusive of autistic families (and families with other sensory needs or disabilities) doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money. There are small, simple changes that you can make in an hour or less today that will help autistic families feel welcome and supported at your library programs (not just storytime). Here are four ways to get started.
Avoid Strong Scents
Families on the autism spectrum, and others with sensory disorders, can find strong smells overwhelming, and even painful. Refrain from wearing perfume, cologne, or any strong-smelling hygiene products. If you have more time, scope out your programming space for other sensory issues like noisy fans or harsh lighting.
Send Questions in Advance
If you’re planning a book club or other activity that involves discussion, send out the discussion questions to families a week ahead of the event. On the day of, print hand-outs of these questions or display them on a white board or projector. Many autistic people have problems with auditory processing, which means they find it difficult to process questions when they hear them out loud. They may struggle to put their answer into words on the spot. Sharing your questions early and in multiple formats will help everyone participate. Do this even with something like an icebreaker – many autistic people find these social situations anxiety inducing.
Patrons who are non-speaking often feel unable to join programs like a book club, because it takes a long time to use an AAC device to create their thoughts on a discussion topic. By providing the questions to everyone ahead of time, someone who uses an AAC can load their answers into their device before the program.
Create A Visual Schedule
A typical visual schedule has a card for each activity that will happen at the program, with both a picture and a word describing what will happen. These are then posted in order on a felt board, an easel, or a white board. As you complete each activity, you can remove it from your board and explain out loud what the next activity will be. For example, at a storytime, you might display a card for each book you read and song you sing, as well as a card for an activity with manipulatives like scarves or shakers.
At a program for older participants, you can use your instructions to make a visual schedule age-appropriate. Always be sure to have printed instructions to hand out for science projects or craft programs. Take photographs of the steps, including any introductory time and clean-up. Many autistic people thrive on explicit instructions for what will happen, and visual schedules help reduce anxiety and ease transitions. Check out this post for more on visual schedules.
Color Communication Badges
Hand out color communication badges before the program starts. This is ideal for school-age children, but can also be useful for younger kids and the adults who bring them. These are name-tag size stickers that you can make in green, yellow, and red. Green means, please talk to me! I’m ready to play. Yellow means, go slow! I’m worried about talking to new people. Red means, I’m not ready! Just let me listen and watch. Give everyone the full set, so participants can switch their colors mid-program if they get overwhelmed or start warming up. Many autistic people need time to hang back and watch before they feel comfortable in a new space or with new people. But not all autistic people! Some autistic people love to socialize and will feel happy striking up a conversation with any new friend. These badges let everyone go at their own pace.
Accessibility Makes Life Better for Everyone
Once you try them, you might find that these changes support not just autistic families, but many other kinds of families: families with disabilities like hearing differences, families that include English language learners, and anyone who is shy or dealing with social anxiety. Have you made any simple changes to increase accessibility? What did you do and how did it go?
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for Santa Clara County Library. All images in this post were created by the author in Canva.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills