For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, reading can be a challenging job and a public library is not always inviting. Some kids need a quiet and calming environment, while others need outside stimulation to allow them to concentrate on the task.
At the new Route 9 Library & Innovation Center in Newark, Delaware, kids with autism and other sensory issues can enjoy their own library experience in a room specifically dedicated to their needs.
“It’s all about the literacy,” explained Heidi Mizell, Resource Coordinator for Autism Delaware. “What would make a child with a sensory disorder want to read?”
The new community learning hub redefines the library experience with ‘Experiential’ spaces. It included a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning laboratory, a black box theater, a maker space, and the Sensory Room. With solar projections and special acoustic technology, kids are able to modulate the levels of sensory stimulation to their personal comfort level. Developed in partnership with Autism Delaware, it’s the first sensory room in the United States designed for a public library.
The design team created many special features for the room, including a little cabin for children wanting a small, secure space and a fiber optic ‘curtain’ that can either enclose a vibrating chair or be draped over a shoulder to direct attention down onto a book. There are bubble tubes that change color for hugging or resting on and an interactive projector that responds to movement, changing the floor to images of water, ice or leaves. Adding sound to the room, special speakers coordinate with the colors and images to produce tones or words.
“Our vision for the room is for folks to come in and use the space to be calmed enough or stimulated enough to read or be read to. Many folks with autism present with sensory issues and this room will be useful to many in our community,” said Ms. Mizell, noting that others will also find a use for the area. “For example, someone who is visually impaired may respond to the fiber optics, using them to assist someone’s eyes down to a book. Or, maybe someone with Alzheimer’s could be calmed or stimulated enough to allow a caregiver to sit and read for a short time. We allowed room for wheelchairs in our plans and there are materials say, weighted or vibrating, available to meet many sensory needs.”
New Castle County’s Innovation Center Library offers something for everyone with a Media Production Studio, a full-service kitchen for students interested in the culinary arts and The Lego® Room where kids and adults can create and build together whatever their imagination comes up with. While the new library building is brand new, built through a combination of state and county money, older libraries can also make accommodations for families with autism.
Dedicated ‘Sensory’ time before or after public hours, a special section filled with manipulative toys to play and experiment with, or portioning off a small section and adding adjustable lighting can instantly create a more welcoming feel for families dealing with sensory issues.
The Route 9 Library Innovation Center ( http://nccde.org/1389/Route-9-Library-Innovation-Center )
FOR THE LIBARARIAN
“Making a library facility more sensory friendly and accessible for individuals with autism requires some training and general knowledge about autism,” notes Suzanne Schriar, Associate Director, Library Automation & Technology, Gwendolyn Brooks Building, Illinois State Library.
She points to one area of concern for most libraries, sensory ‘triggers.’
"Sensory overload is a characteristic of autism and can result in emotional meltdowns,” she explains.
Sensory triggers in a library can include the humming and flickering of fluorescent lighting, seating that is uncomfortable or too crowded, loud noises, clutter and a lack of clear signage or directions. Some of these are easy fixes.
“For cost-effective solutions and best practices for library programming and environmental considerations, a wonderful resource is Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Barbara Klipper (ALA Editions, 2014)” she recommends. “In addition, check out the resources page in the Targeting Autism for Librarians blog. (https://targetingautismlibs.com/about/).”
At the Targeting Autism site, you’ll find information about other innovative programs and services, librarian workshops and even grants from all across the country.
Another online resource can be found at Libraries & Autism (http://www.librariesandautism.org/index.htm)