Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest Blog Post: On the Spectrum and @ Your Library.

Today's blog post is brought to you by Matthew Ross, he is the director of the Bucyrus Public Library in Ohio and the father of 3 children, one of whom is Autistic.  Alex's mom, Angie, is also an MLS librarian.  Together they write this blog post for us with a unique perspective for librarians to consider when serving our tween and teen patrons on the spectrum.

On the Spectrum and @Your Library
Our son rubs his hands together in a ritualistic flurry. It’s called “stimming” and it is a strategy Alex uses to calm himself down when things get a little too intense for him to handle. Right now things are intense. Apparently, the lady in front of us at the circ desk is concerned because she has fines—she is sure she returned them on time.   Alex’s stimming grows faster. Sometimes that happens when he is really happy, but since we have been waiting for a good five minutes to get our movies checked out and be on our way, I’m pretty sure that happiness is currently not an issue. In fact, I get the feeling we are just moments away from a full-on autistic meltdown.
For a child with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), a simple trip to the library can be a difficult adventure. Sure, the library has lots of great stuff, but to access it, you have to pay a pretty big price in terms of anxiety. What if they relocated the movies? What if someone else is sitting in your chair? What if the books are not in the right order? When ASD is involved, things are never simple.
Alex was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder at age two. Taking him to the library was a challenge even when he was in a stroller. Let’s just say Alex was never too good at displaying proper reverence in Mr. Carnegie’s Temple of Quiet Reflection. As he got too old to be easily corralled, we were forced to stop taking him altogether outside of rare, quick trips in and out.
It still seems strange that we cannot go to the neighborhood library as a family and enjoy browsing the shelves before enjoying some of the great programs they offer. Maybe that’s because we know what we’re missing. Each morning, I commute a few miles up the road from my home to my job as the Director of the Bucyrus Public Library. My wife, Angela, spent six years as a Reference Librarian at the Lima Public Library before we decided that it was best for Alex if she stayed at home to take care of him. We are a family that loves libraries. I just wish my son could enjoy them.
If the statistics are accurate, chances are that you know a kid like Alex too. Since one in every 80 boys and one in every 240 girls are dealing with a disorder on the spectrum, that’s a lot of patrons who may find it difficult or impossible to enjoy the services, materials and programs you work so hard to provide. In fact, it’s more than the total number of people diagnosed with breast cancer and childhood diabetes each year combined. It is my hope that the profession will increasingly realize that this rapidly growing and often misunderstood segment of our community is underserved—and that is unacceptable.
Fortunately, librarians do seem to get it. They want to help. No one wants to see a population excluded from the library, but many staff members do not feel like they have the training or the tools to serve individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder. In New Jersey, Fanwood Memorial Library and the Scotch Plains Library have teamed up to create “Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected,” an awesome outreach for ASD individuals. Be sure to check out their training video to pick up great tips for staff interacting with the ASD community.
As I mentioned though, my wife and I are not just librarians. We’re patrons and parents and autism looms large in our lives. So I would like to leave you with a few tips from that perspective. Hopefully, they can make your library a welcoming place for families like ours:
1.     Be Sensitive: Teen Librarians are used to some pretty bizarre patron behavior, but a child dealing with a particularly difficult ASD moment can raise that to a whole new level. These kids and their caregivers are used to seeing shocked stares and obvious disapproval everywhere they go. Don’t let the library become associated with that scene.  If a behavior cannot be ignored, a simple, sincere offer to help would be appreciated.
Image from http://www.displaysforschools.com/autism.html
2.     Offer Targeted Programming: For many kids with ASD, a typical library program might be intolerable. Literally. Too much stimulation—loud noises, too many moving bodies, crazy lights—can be painful and overwhelming. Consider spending a little of your programming time and effort on offerings tailored to the needs of kids dealing with autism. It could be as simple as doing a movie night with the lights on, the sound a little lower, and the expectation that there will be interruptions.  It is really hard to find appropriate activities for kids on the spectrum. If you make the effort, we will notice.

3.     Offer Targeted Materials: Individuals on the spectrum, as well as their caregivers, have unique information needs. Things that typical teens take for granted—such as handling simple social situations—can produce a lot of anxiety for patrons dealing with ASD. Parents are likely to find all kinds of materials on raising a young child with autism, but information on raising autistic teens can be a lot harder to come by. Get to know the specialty publishers and find out what’s out there that should be on your shelves. In an age of gaming, programming, and computers, we sometimes forget that a simple book on a shelf can be a real lifeline for our patrons. As a parent, I can tell you that a copy of Meeting Autism’s Challenges for Dummies does not come free with your child’s diagnosis.
Matt mentions in his post targeted programming with a special emphasis on adapted movie screenings; some big chain movie theaters are doing programs of this nature with great success.  There was recently an Autism friendly screening of Breaking Dawn for teens and adults on the spectrum.

Matt also suggests doing targeted materials; Toys R Us gives us a good example of a helpful list with its autism friendly toys list.  Without a doubt libraries could make the same type of lists highlighting books in their collections for people on the spectrum.  You can read my previous blog post on Teens/Tweens with Autism and Libraries which has a link to the Toys R Us list.

It is an honor in my life to be able to call Matt and Angie not only co-workers and fellow professionals, but friends.  I have gotten to spend time with them and Alex and not only appreciate him as a person but see the challenges that autism brings to a family.  They have recently started a special church ministry with their church to allow families with children on the spectrum the opportunity to go to church.  I appreciate them taking the time to write this blog post for us and help us understand from both a parent and librarian point of view some insight into what libraries can be doing to help kids and teens of all ages on the spectrum.

4 comments:

  1. I am so pleased to read this post! I am a children's librarian in an Illinois public library, and am working to educate others about patrons with autism and other special needs. I'm glad to hear that you feel as a parents that librarians "are getting it." It's true, though, that we need help, and as a parent, you know your child the best. Who better than to help us than you! This message is so valuable--I'll be sharing it far and wide!

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  2. I'm a Children's Librarian Assistant, but before I got the opportunity to work where I am now I worked as an aide to a young man on the Spectrum. Some of these suggestions are wonderful and I wish there were more people who knew them! Especially about not making a huge deal out of fines. My young man developed a HUGE fear of the Public Library because of fines and over due books (we worked extensively on that...). Teaching and helping those who work within the Public Libraries how to handle THEMSELVES around Spectrum kids is a wonderful idea.

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  3. I'm a Children's Librarian Assistant, but before I got the opportunity to work where I am now I worked as an aide to a young man on the Spectrum. Some of these suggestions are wonderful and I wish there were more people who knew them! Especially about not making a huge deal out of fines. My young man developed a HUGE fear of the Public Library because of fines and over due books (we worked extensively on that...). Teaching and helping those who work within the Public Libraries how to handle THEMSELVES around Spectrum kids is a wonderful idea.

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  4. Wonderful post! As some one who spent time with a young man on the Spectrum, these ideas would have helped him immensely! It is especially important to note that how WE handle ourselves around these teens and children makes a HUGE difference in their demeanor and how comfortable they are at the Library.

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