Glenda Rodriguez has long championed children on the autism spectrum—providing services well before the term autism was as widely familiar as it is today. As the special education director for New Mexico’s Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS), she had enlisted the University of New Mexico to help evaluate students 15 years ago and oversaw the creation of an autism resource library available for use by the entire Las Cruces community.
As autism rates continued to rise—one in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Rodriguez looked to do even more. In April 2014, LCPS opened the doors to a new Autism Resource Library at Centennial High School and developed a related parent handbook available in both English and Spanish. In a new online certification program through New Mexico State University, 20 LCPS teachers will receive training in how to work with children on the autism spectrum over a three year span.
“When we started [evaluating students 15 years ago], we had very few children diagnosed,” says Rodriguez. “Today, we have 206 children [in our school district] identified.”
As national rates of autism grow, parents are looking for ways to help their children, across the spectrum. From offering early intervention to transitioning older teens to the responsibilities of adulthood, libraries are stepping up, providing programming, materials, classes, and other resources to support parents and their kids.
In school environments as well as in public libraries, educators are recognizing the impact they can have on autistic children by offering visual and sensory storytimes and resources that can help at home.
Tools for the trade
Nancy Everhart, director of the Partnerships Advancing Library Media (PALM) Center and the School Library Media Center at Florida State University’s (FSU) School of Information, is also looking at how she can better prepare librarians with the tools they need to not only reach this population, but enhance their communication skills and independence.
“A lot of people in [libraries] may not get any training at all in working with kids on the autism spectrum,” says Everhart, who served as the co-primary investigator of Project PALS (Panhandle Autism Library Services). “We are developing four online professional modules for librarians so they can work with kids on the spectrum.”
Project PALS, a joint venture between FSU’s PALM Center and its Autism Institute at the College of Medicine, aims to help librarians and educators understand how autism is diagnosed. The program also offers tools, from strategies on designing spaces for children on the spectrum to ways to integrate technology into social interaction and support children’s individual learning styles. Partly funded by a $575,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Project PALS has produced four Web-based programs, each about 45 minutes to an hour long. The first was presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas in June.
Working with Everhart on Project PALS were Juliann Woods, co-primary investigator for Project PALS and professor and director of research at FSU’s School of Information; Amy Weatherby, director of the Autism Institute at FSU’s College of Medicine; and Amelia Anderson, a doctoral student assistant. Research conducted at local libraries near FSU included shooting video of children on the spectrum while they were using computers and doing other tasks. These efforts informed a recommendation that libraries allow autistic patrons the opportunity to check out books on their own.
“Sometimes people with autism do not want to interact,” says Everhart.
Participants in the online programs will take quizzes at the end of each module, with the option to print out a certificate if they earn a passing score. Everhart is unsure what the charge for each program will be—but she says the cost to librarians for taking all four will be nominal. She hopes librarians will take all four programs to better educate themselves on the topic.
Will Wagler didn’t have any such training when he started at the Seattle Public Library (SPL) in 2004. Launching a program that could serve children with autism was an idea he introduced in December 2012, two years after he began his role as children’s services librarian. Program planning started that January with then-children’s services librarian Jennifer Bisen, and the pilot of their “Sensory Story Times” launched in fall 2013 in two branches—Columbia and Greenwood—every other Saturday. By April 2014, the series was running every Saturday at alternating branches.
Open to parents, caregivers, and children 10 and under who are either on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues, the program is designed at the developmental level of a preschooler, says Wagler. Children are given TheraBand exercise bands to help them stretch their muscles and limbs, and there’s music, with Wagler playing the guitar at the Columbia branch; also, children are given theme-related objects—like toy rockets if they are reading the book This Rocket (FSG, 2005)—to hold while they listen.
“It helps them concentrate if there is something they can squeeze,” he says.
Wagler and the team asked parents for feedback as they went along and adjusted their program accordingly. In the beginning, for example, the two librarians running the sessions would converse, playing off each other, having fun. Surveys showed they needed to adjust their style.
Autistic children have issues with processing language, they learned. “With both of us talking at the same time, it was difficult, in some cases, for them to know who to listen to and grasp that,” says Wagler. “So now, only one of us talks, while the other one does an action.”
SPL’s Sensory Story Time lasts about 20 minutes, with additional time devoted to play, such as blowing bubbles or running in and out of an Ikea circus tent. Parents and caregivers also use the time to talk with each other. So far, feedback has been very positive.
“One of the best things I heard [from a parent] was that this was the first storytime a kid sat through all the way and didn’t wander off,” says Wagler. “And we were like, ‘Yay! Success!’”
One for all
Sensory-based tools also form the basis of programs at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). The After School Stories activity includes reading a story and singing, followed by an activity. During Garden Club sessions, participants use skills from Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory, says Carrie Banks, supervising librarian at The Child’s Place, a part of BPL that serves children and teens with special needs. The MI elements include linguistic, logical/mathematical, inter/intrapersonal, naturalistic, and other intelligences.
When Banks arrived at BPL in 1997, the program existed at one site and focused intensively on serving children with special needs. But Banks and her team began to look at models of MI theory and universal design, with the idea that if they constructed these programs for one group and designed them well, they would work for everyone.
“So we retooled things, and by 1999, we had inclusive programming,” she says.
For children with sensory issues, the library builds “social stories” to acclimate them to the programming they’re about to attend; these documents display images and printed words, and can be downloaded from the Web, helping children understand specifically what they will be doing that day at the library—from walking through the front door to sitting on a chair. A 2010 grant from CVS Caremark, the pharmacy giant, helped BPL further develop their social stories.
The latest effort has focused on building programs for teens on the spectrum and helping them transition to the adult world.
“We saw kids growing up, and we didn’t have as well-developed a program to offer them,” says Banks. “So we had focus groups with teens and young adults with disabilities to see what they wanted.”
Those sessions launched weekly programs with LEGOs and adaptive gaming—activities that fit the needs of children and teens with autism that won’t create “sensory overload,” says Banks. The sessions are mostly drop-in, because, according to Banks, parents wouldn’t register their children in advance, concerned that if they couldn’t come, they would feel guilty.
The success of the children and teen’s programming is vividly clear. Once serving just 1,000 special needs students under 12 when Banks arrived in 1997, both programs have swelled, serving nearly 24,000 in 2013. That audience includes children, teens, and young adults up to age 23, as well as caregivers, educators, and parents. The growing number informs Banks that not only has demand increased, but that BPL has found a way to serve the full spectrum of its patrons’ needs wherever they may be on the sliding scale.
“Traditionally the library has two roles—the special service model, such as having a Braille printer…and sensory storytime,” says Banks. “Then there’s the model where everyone is welcomed everywhere. We have created something that combines them.”