In my area, libraries are bringing back their pre-pandemic range of programs, but one program is mostly missing: sensory storytime. I live in a busy, urban area, and yet in my entire county, only one library system has a weekly sensory storytime. My family needs a disability-friendly storytime if we’re going to be able to attend. For Autism Acceptance Month, let’s talk about why these types of storytimes are so important, and why they can be so hard to get (or keep) in the line-up.
Regular Storytime Can Be Next to Impossible for Some Families
I’ve been doing storytimes for more than ten years, and even I, with my insider library knowledge, cannot make a regular storytime work for my autistic two-year-old. Storytimes in our area regularly have anywhere from 50-200 people in attendance. When we’ve tried to attend with crowds that large, my kiddo gets distressed immediately. He cries and signs ALL DONE, ALL DONE until I get him out of there.
These busy storytimes often ask you to line up early to get in, or pick up tickets in advance. This means hanging around the library for 30 minutes to an hour before storytime begins. He isn’t able to tolerate the wait in addition to the storytime itself. Add in all the sensory input – loud music, rambunctious kids, lots to see – and his social anxiety from being around so many people, and we both feel like crying after just a few minutes.
Why Sensory Storytime?
Sensory storytime (or autism storytime, or Super Family storytime, or whatever disability-accepting language you’d like to use) is such a ray of light for my family. The one we attend is limited to about ten children. This keeps things much quieter and calmer and helps my kiddo’s anxiety – and it’s important to remember that anxiety is a huge part of autism. With a smaller group, the librarians are also able to get to know the kids better. Shoutout to Librarian Alicia and Librarian Elise at Palo Alto City Library, who remember my son’s favorite color is red and let him have the red scarf every time. They help him build a relationship with a safe adult, something that is both incredibly difficult and incredibly valuable for him.
Many elements of the storytime stay consistent from week to week – scarves, parachute, bubbles – which helps my child feel secure. Parachute time is great for my niece, who is sensory-seeking, and loves being underneath the whoosh of the parachute. It’s also great for my kiddo, who is sensory-avoidant. He hangs safely in my arms and enjoys the parachute songs. He gets lots of props and adaptive pieces to each story, which helps hold his attention. If he starts to get anxious, we can look to the visual schedule to see how much is left before we get to a preferred activity. The librarians share their storytime outlines in advance, which gives me a chance to introduce books and songs to him before we go. All of these together make a safe space for him to participate in a group activity for the first time in his little life.
Autistic Families Build Social Connections in Sensory Storytimes
In addition to the storytime itself, the social experience is huge for us. I get social support by knowing that the library staff and other parents and caregivers understand that none of the kids are trying to be too disruptive, or too bouncy, or too loud, or too reserved. My child gets a chance to interact with his peers – and it’s wildly important for neurodivergent children to not just socialize with the general population, but with other children like them.
Research has shown that autistic children are much, much more likely to find acceptance and develop friendships when they are in social spaces made up only of other autistic kids and families. There are so few places that we can go, and almost nowhere we can go for free, where we are likely to find other people like us.
Challenges That Push Disability-Friendly Events Off the Map
We drive twenty miles each way to attend our sensory storytime, even though there are a dozen other libraries between here and there. One nearby system offers sensory storytime only once a month – that’s too infrequent for my child, and he would have to adjust to it from scratch every month. A monthly storytime also isn’t equitable, if other storytime are once a week – it’s presenting sensory storytime as an addition, or worse, an after thought. These libraries probably have their reasons for feeling unable to provide sensory storytime – lack of staff is a valid concern. But it is also our job to serve the underserved. I usually hear two principle concerns when it comes to prioritizing any kind of disability-friendly program, from storytimes to STEAM projects: the fear of poor attendance, and feeling incapable of working with the disability community.
The Fear of Poor Attendance
Many people believe that disability programs like sensory storytime aren’t well-attended. That can make it hard to get an administration to prioritize them. The families are there (research shows 1 in 36 children have been diagnosed as autistic by age 8, with an unknown number undiagnosed), but there may be reasons they don’t attend. Maybe they don’t know about it, or they can’t get to it, or they don’t know the meaning of terminology like “sensory storytime.” Their schedules might be booked with therapies. Maybe they’re wary of how they might be treated. And because girls and children of color are historically underdiagnosed, their families may not even realize sensory storytime is for them. These are real problems, but they are also problems that can be overcome. A program that only reaches 5 autistic participants can still be a program that makes an incredible difference in those patrons’ lives.
A Lack of Training or Knowledge
The second challenge I hear is that staff don’t know how to put on a disability-friendly program like sensory storytime. They feel like they don’t have the education or the resources to try. The ALSC blog has lots of posts that can help you get started. You can also check out the book Library Programming for Autistic Children and Teens from ALA – the second edition has sections written by autistic library staff. You might also have resources in your area who can partner with you for support – an Early Intervention office, a special education department of your school district, or a non-profit. It’s okay to start small and then get feedback from the families who attend. Ask yourself if part of the reason you feel unqualified is because you feel autistic families are too different. Don’t let a fear of us prevent you from opening up your space to us.
The space that my family finds in sensory storytime is precious to us, when we struggle so much to find acceptance in other places. That is a valuable library story, and it can be just as important as a wildly popular program with 400 people in attendance. We love the space you make for us. Please invite us in.
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 belong to the author.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills