Blogger Public Awareness and Advocacy Committee

Autism Advocacy in the Library

Recently I’ve had several adult friends seeking autism diagnoses for themselves and/or their children. As a neurotypical, it’s been enlightening discovering how the autistic experience is different from my own and how empowering the simple knowledge and diagnosis can be for them.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned is how important it is to have people that understand and advocate for autistics. As children’s librarians, we are in a great position to be those advocates for autistic children and their families in our library and our communities.

According to the CDC, today 1 in 36 children in the United States are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and, while it’s much easier to diagnose children today, there are many, especially girls, that are “missed” or “hiding in plain sight” so those numbers could be even higher.  ASD is a developmental disability that can affect how autistic people behave, communicate, interact, learn, and perceive the world around them.

So how can we advocate in our libraries for autistic children and their families? 

Educate Yourself

The biggest way to advocate for them is to educate yourself!  We’re librarians.  We know this! 

There are some great websites and toolkits that can help you learn more about it.  The more you know, the more likely you are to be prepared for interactions with neurodivergent children that may feel awkward to a neurotypical mind.  Some that I like are:

Use Identity-first language

There’s a lot of debate around language and semantics but many people in the autism community and their allies are choosing to use “autistic” or “autistic person” when referring to someone with ASD because autism is an inherent part of that person’s identity. 

Learn simple communication tips

A barrier to providing customer service to an autistic child can often be simple communication differences.  Some tips for communicating with autistics include:

  • Be clear and direct, leaving out sarcasm, irony, figurative language, etc.
  • Be specific (for example, “Did you enjoy storytime?” instead of “how’s your day going?”)
  • Stress and repeat the words that are most important.  When in doubt rephrase the same information in multiple ways
  • Don’t push eye contact
  • Avoid using excessive hand gestures or other non-verbal communication
  • Learn to be comfortable with pauses if they need to process what you said
  • Be aware of your environment.  Things that neurotypicals may be able to ignore, like a lot of noise or a fan, might significantly impact an autistic’s ability to focus

Provide ASD-friendly programming and services

If you haven’t already, try offering a sensory storytime or an ASD-friendly music program.  Consider providing sensory kits for families to checkout or sensory stations for kids to play at in the library.  The Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit has an amazing set of resources that can help you get started.  Also, just look around and see what your fellow librarians are doing.  Please feel free to tell us of things you’ve done in the comments below to get the sharing started!

Buy and Share Children’s Books Featuring Autistic Characters

We’re always discussing mirrors and windows in children’s books and this is just as important for autistic children.  Make sure that you’re buying and displaying books featuring autistic children or sensory experiences. 

Books like Too Much!: an Overwhelming Day by Jolene Gutierrez don’t specifically call out autism but share the feeling of sensory overload.  Books like My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete or Bitsy Bat, School Star by Kaz Windness could make great read-alongs.  For older kids, there are books like All the Small Wonderful Things by Kate Foster or Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll that feature dynamic, strong neurodivergent leads.

Thankfully we’re seeing more and more books coming out with autistic characters.  Take a look at the Autism-Ready Library Toolkit’s list of books 

Practice Empathy 

Most importantly, be open and empathetic!  Know that each autistic person’s experience and needs are different.  Be understanding and open to learning so that you can become the best advocate for your autistic kiddos!

This post addresses ALSC competency V4 Advocates for eliminating barriers to library service for children based on socioeconomic circumstances, culture, privilege, language, gender, ability, and other diversities, and for overcoming systems of oppression, discrimination, exclusion, and ethnocentrism.

Samantha Kretschmer is writing this post on behalf of the Public Awareness and Advocacy Committee.  She can be reached at skretschmer@geaugalibrary.net

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