Helping Libraries to be Autism-Ready
The need for libraries to be autism-ready
Imagine a child standing in front of a brightly lit room at their local public library. Lively music is playing, and bubbles are bouncing all around. Children and adults fill the room, talking loudly and playing with toys. Off in the distance is a colorful rug with letters on it where everyone will gather for storytime. Does the child go right in, look for friends, and find a spot on the rug? Or do they stop, cover their ears, close their eyes, and take a deep breath? And what do the parents decide is best for their child, perhaps remembering a previous negative experience?
Early learning for all?
Public libraries strive to be welcoming places for families and children by offering rich collections and varied programming that intentionally supports learning and development as well as interactivity and socialization.
Storytimes are often the most well-known library offering for families and children, and these programs can take place in fluorescently lit and busy rooms where there are crowds of people, a high decibel level of sound, ambiguous rules and norms, and other potentially intense elements.
Storytimes are often the most well-known library offering for families and children, and these programs can take place in fluorescently lit and busy rooms where there are crowds of people, a high decibel level of sound, ambiguous rules and norms, and other potentially intense elements. For a neurotypical child and their family, this kind of program can offer a stimulating learning opportunity.
However, for children with sensory or learning differences, such as autism, this program may present barriers to benefitting from the play and learning in the program. These barriers can include an unwelcome and sometimes judgmental climate, an inaccessible sensory environment, and an unpredictable sequence of events. Libraries have tried to address these barriers by offering sensory programs with quiet areas for emotion management, fidget toys, lowered light and sound levels, and more. However, these programs often have a limited focus on learning and literacy. Thus, library staff continue to need guidance on how to plan and deliver inclusive, accessible, learning-rich programs for autistic children and their families.
The power of intentionality
To meet this need, a research team at the University of Washington has released an online resource, “Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit,” that seeks to “empower youth-serving librarians and library staff with the early literacy training and programming materials they need to provide autism-inclusive early literacy services.”
Five key principles guide the training content to help library staff reimagine storytimes as autism-ready, inclusive, learning-rich environments:
- Foster a community of inclusion
- Provide an accessible environment
- Provide multiple methods of representation, engagement, and expression
- Meet families where they are
- Recognize each child’s individual and diverse interests, strengths, and needs.
Drawing on interdisciplinary research, the Toolkit provides training modules, sensory audit checklists, and storytime lesson plans designed to empower and prepare library staff to provide learning-rich programs for autistic and their families in an informed, intentional, and welcoming space.
The Toolkit takes learners through three modules:
- Autism Acceptance & Inclusion: an introduction to neurodiversity, an understanding of the myths and stereotypes that surround autism, and the ways in which you can build an acceptance of autism at your library. (Approximately 1 hour to review.)
- Autism-Inclusive Customer Service: an introduction to autism-inclusive customer service, ways to identify service barriers and customer needs, the importance of building rapport, and best practices for you as you do this work at your library. A scenario activity at the end of the module offers some hands-on practice. (Approximately 1 hour to review.)
- Inclusive Early Literacy Services: an introduction to inclusive early literacy services, an introduction to what early literacy development looks like for autistic children, a two-part explanation of autism-inclusive early literacy programs, and guidance on engaging parents in home literacy practices. (Approximately 2 hours to review.)
Putting learning into practice
The Autism-Ready Toolkit’s training and resources apply to both in- and out-of-library programming, includes step-by-step advocacy resources, and is also broadly relevant for anyone seeking to better understand and serve autistic children and their families. Library staff are already beginning to use some of these strategies and recommendations in their programming, such as reassuring parents that it’s fine for children to wiggle and move around during storytime, and using a visual schedule.
“My biggest hope is that librarians who use our Toolkit will see how much their current practices already support autistic children's early literacy learning,” says Milly Romeijn-Stout, a researcher on the project. “I want library staff to feel confident and know that they don't need to be experts in autism to serve this community. When librarians apply their knowledge and adapt their practice to be inclusive, even small changes can improve access for autistic children and their families and make a big impact on the whole community.”
Note: This toolkit grew out of a research study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (LG-240561-OLS).
 Identity-first language is preferred by autistic self-advocates and their allies (https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/). Some individuals and families may prefer person-first language. Please refer to the individual preferences of your customers and patrons.
Additional resources for serving neurodiverse patrons
WebJunction free course Serving Library Users on the Autism Spectrum
WebJunction free webinar Serving the Underserved: Children with Disabilities at Your Library
A write-up of the above webinar Welcoming Children with Disabilities at Your Library
Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit resources page