On a Saturday in Stamford, Connecticut a the Ferguson Public Library, a group of about ten kids, ages three to five, sit in a circle on the floor for “Sensory Storytime” and sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” As they sing, they pull on exercise bands to the beat of the song. Later, they blow through straws to create bubbles and walk on a colorful, textured oval track that’s slightly elevated. Some of the children are autistic and some may have a sensory processing issue other than autism, but all of them can comfortably participate in these activities. (Unlike typical library programs, “Sensory Storytime” is created specifically to comfortably engage children on the autism spectrum.)
Barbara Klipper is a pioneer for disability-friendly library programming, specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Currently a semi-retired consultant for library services for children with disabilities, Klipper worked as a librarian at the Ferguson Library when she began to incorporate disability-friendly programming back in 2002. Although Klipper has two sons on the autism spectrum, she says she’d intended to keep her career separate from her family life. However, the president of the library knew Klipper had first hand experience with autism and enlisted her help after a patron requested child-focused autism programming.
“I wrote a grant proposal to start the [library’s] Special Needs Center, which was really just a couple of bookcases and print outs and a bulletin board we called ‘Special Needs News,’” she said. “Out of that, we started doing some programming.”
Watch a clip of Ferguson Library’s “Sensory Storytime.”
Ferguson’s “Sensory Storytime” began seven years later. Klipper had borrowed the idea from the Mount Lebanon Public Library’s (in Pittsburg, PA) Sensory Storytime. She had heard that the library was doing some activities described in Carol Kranowitz’s book The Out-of-Sync Child (Skylight Press, 1998).
Klipper’s version of “Sensory Storytime” doesn’t exclusively serve kids on the autism spectrum, and the related activities, although therapeutic, are always connected to a book.
“If we were reading The Cat in the Hat, maybe I’d have the kids throw bean bags into Cat in the Hat-type hat, or maybe put goldfish and Swedish fish candy in a bowl and have them pick it up with tongs,” says Klipper. She also made additional accommodations for her version of “Sensory Storytime” to ensure its success. “We offered it on a Saturday. It was the only storytime available on weekends. In [the] marketing, we used language describing it as fun for all kids and appropriate for kids with sensory disorders. The group size was small, so there was a lot of one-on-one attention.”
Klipper has long stopped running the program, and it continues under the direction of Ferguson librarian Caroline Ward, coordinator of youth services. This last February, Klipper’s first book, Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ALA), was released, containing background information on ASD to help library staff understand the needs of patrons on the spectrum. Her goal is to make programs more effective, as well as provide a step-by-step guide to setting up programs that have already proven to work nationwide, in both public and school libraries.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, physical accessibility became federal law, meaning that libraries needed accessible layouts and collections. Yet, there is no law demanding that library programs be disability-friendly. The language under the “Library Services for People with Disabilities” policy says, “Libraries should include persons with disabilities as participants in the planning, implementing, and evaluating of library services, programs, and facilities.” The wording does not make it mandatory for librarians to include persons with disabilities, but some librarians have created programs and promoted resources for children with disabilities, like ASD, as well as resources for children with hearing and/or motor difficulties.
According to Klipper, ”Disability fits in [the library world], but where is less clear.”
However, leaders in the field of librarianship are paving the way for accommodations and scaffolding in programming. In Westerville, Ohio, “Sensory Storytime” has gone digital. Amy Price, a librarian at the Oakstone Academy, a K-12 private school in Westerville, has enhanced the program with iPads. (A tutorial can be found here.) Price has performed a dedicated study on the “effectiveness of interactive ebooks on iPads with [the autistism] population” with the support of grant funding from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and the State Library of Ohio. According to Price’s April 2014 blog post on the Institute of Museum and Librarian Sciences “UpNext” blog, the use of iPads leads up to 25 percent greater comprehension in patrons with autism in comparison to using the traditional print book.
In Glencoe, Illinois, Renee Grassi, the head of children’s services at the Glencoe Public Library for the past two years, is also an advocate of ASD-inclusive programming.
“We [have seen] a humongous response—full programs, wait-lists, and requests for similar programs in nearby libraries,” she said.
Grassi goes on to talk about scaffolding for kids with autism, including a tool she has created called “social stories.”
“Social stories are stories that use simple text, lots of pictures, and first-person language so that the child experiences the new experience himself,” said Grassi. “Kids that have autism need a lot more scaffolding—that is, more preparation and structure and accommodations—to make a visit to the public library.”
One “Social Story,” for example, explains what it’s like to visit the library. Pictures illustrate what the rooms look like and what toys and stories are available. The text explains the idea of signing up for time on the computer with short, simple sentences. This way, the children know beforehand what the library looks like, who works there, and what they can do in the space.
Grassi also helped start a networking group called “Special Needs and Inclusive Library Services” (SNAILS). The group meets on a quarter-yearly basis, and its Blogspot page provides links to resources such as adaptive and interactive books, grant opportunities, and webinars. Though the group and the participating libraries are based in the Chicago area, the blog entries and the information SNAILS provides can be used around the country.
For example, ASD-friendly movie nights—an event mentioned under the “Resources” tab on the SNAILS blog—recommend the lights be left on and sound stay at a lower volume during the movie, while those who want to can move around or play with pipe cleaners and stress balls to keep their hands busy.
“ASD is a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. [It] is called a ‘spectrum disorder,” because it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees,” said Ashley Parker, the communications manager at The Autism Society. “Up to 90 percent of children with autism react in unusual ways to sights, sounds, or touch. A child might shy away from bright lights, appear indifferent to pain or repeatedly seek out certain textures, for example. Individuals can deal with sensory issues by adjusting environments, patterns, and schedules.”
Other educators around the country are scaffolding or creating new programs for people with disabilities. Professor Jessica Scott, from the University of Tulsa’s Deaf Education Program, reached out to the deaf and hearing impaired population in Oklahoma. Scott became interested in American Sign Language (ASL) and deaf culture in high school. Now, as a professor working on her dissertation, Scott started a reading clinic that matches up students enrolled in her “Literacy and Deaf Children” course to children in elementary, middle, or high school with hearing impairments for one hour tutoring sessions each week.
The reading clinic began this last February and will be for ten weeks during the spring semester, though Scott hopes to continue after the course is over. She has eight children enrolled for this term—one child per tutor—and there’s a wait list. Scott explained that a child with hearing impairments will struggle with literacy, because learning to read is challenging when it’s hard to hear the sounds that letters make. It can be difficult for children who are deaf to make the connection between a sign for a word and the written letters to express that same word. Moreover, reading books in English is like reading in a second language if the reader’s primary method of communication is ASL. “ASL doesn’t follow English grammar. It’s a totally separate language, so people will paraphrase a paragraph or page,” Scott explained. “On average, deaf children get through high school with a fourth- grade reading level.” Scott mentioned that YouTube videos and phone apps like Signed Stories and Baobab are helpful for those with hearing impairments, but also said that these tools remain unknown to the majority of the population—including mainstream teachers and librarians.
Cindy Barton, a mother whose daughter, Lily, participates in Scott’s reading clinic, says it has been a great experience for her second grader.
“Just a few weeks ago, Lily would not read to me unless I bribed her with some kind of reward,” said Barton. “She also complained and called reading ‘boring.’ This weekend, she picked up a book and started reading it herself without any direction from me. That is a major milestone.”
Like Scott, librarian Carrie Banks, from the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), teaches a college course called “Including Children with Disabilities in Library Services” at the Pratt Institute in New York City where, since 1997, she has also worked as a supervising librarian at the Child’s Place for Children and Teens with Special Needs at BPL. (All programs at the Child’s Place are inclusive and barrier-free, meaning they go above and beyond ADA standards for accessibility.) Last year, according to Banks, Child’s Place served more than 22,000 patrons.
“It’s one thing to be accessible,” Banks said, “but it’s another to be welcoming.”
In order to be welcoming to tweens and teens with physical disabilities, Banks tried out the “Adaptive Gaming Arcade” in September 2013, and it became a monthly event in January 2014. One Saturday each month, games on the Wii or Kinect systems become accessible to people with motor difficulties via adapted controllers. Existing switches on the controller are made to be activated by head movements, for example, and rumble patches can sit on shoulders.
(According to John Huth, a librarian at the BPL’s Child’s Place who helps rewire the equipment to make it adaptable to children with motor skill challenges, rumble patches are adaptive pads hooked up to a video game console like the Xbox. The patches are mounted on a player’s shoulders, so that when the player is engaged in a game that involves a physical experience, such as a car crash or a fall, he or she is able to feel this sensory experience through the rumble patches.)
Banks estimates that the program draws in anywhere from 40 to 70 people during the three-hour run. She used community input, like focus groups, to create programs that kids—both disabled and not—would want to participate in.
“Statistically, 20 percent of the population has a learning disability in the United States,” says Banks. “The Center for Disease Control says one in 68 kids has autism, so if libraries aren’t getting kids and teens with disabilities into the library, they should be asking why not.”
Carly Okyle is a freelance journalist who has written for FamilyCircle.com, YourTango.com, and Guideposts magazine. Her blog “The D Card” is candid look at living with disability issues.