According to Occupational Therapist, Bill Wong: “For autistic individuals to succeed in this world, they need to find their strengths and the people that will help them get to their hopes and dreams. In order to do so, ability to make and keep friends is a must. Amongst those friends, there must be mentors to show them the way. A supportive environment where they can learn from their mistakes is what we as a society needs to create for them.”1.
As teen library workers, we have an incredible wealth of resources at our fingertips to assist teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Along with these resources, we have colleagues, community partners, and experts who are passionate and willing to help us with create services and programs for teens with ASD. The sky is the limit when it comes to creating an inclusive environment, but, sometimes, starting from the ground up can be daunting. However, no matter what how long it takes to implement and plan these services and programs, the end result will create an honest dialogue between the library and our entire teen population to foster an environment of camaraderie, acceptance, and empathy.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
According to National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS):
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. The symptoms are present from early childhood and affect daily functioning. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability in functioning that can occur in people with ASD. Some children and adults with ASD are fully able to perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support to perform basic activities.”2
On March 27, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new study that identified 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 3 Since 2000, the rates have increased by 119%, which means that ASD is one of the most common development disorders in the United States. Although Autism has been around for more than 100 years, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Autism was classified as an actual neurological disorder and not a mood disorder (i.e., Schizophrenia). Since ASD is in fact treatable, children are being diagnosed at an early age so they can get the necessary therapies they need to manage thir symptoms. Although the resources are available for an early diagnosis, some parents may have a difficult time finding out how to get their child help due a variety of reasons. Due to these obstacles, children and teens could potentially fall to the wayside in their development and this is where libraries can help children and teens with ASD.
How Libraries Can Help Teens with ASD
Before we set off to create an amazing set of programs and services for teens with ASD, we need to educate ourselves first and foremost. Here are a few resources we can consult to better understand ASD and what parents and teens are experiencing:
- Klipper, B. (2014). Programming for children and teens with autism spectrum disorder. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
- Ozonoff, S. (2014). A Parent’s Guide to High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, Second Edition: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
- Sicile-Kira, C. (2006). Adolescents on the autism spectrum: A parent’s guide to the cognitive, social, physical and transition needs of teenagers with autism spectrum disorders. New York: A Perigee Book.
- Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. New York, NY: Avery.
- Autism Research Institute (http://www.autism.com/)
- Autism Speaks (https://www.autismspeaks.org/)
- Autism Society (http://www.autism-society.org/)
- National Autism Society (http://nationalautismassociation.org
- Talk About Curing Autism (http://www.tacanow.org/)
- YALSA Wiki-Serving Diverse Teens @ Your Library (http://wikis.ala.org/yalsa/index.php/Serving_Diverse_Teens_@_Your_Library#Serving_Disabled_Teens)
One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t have to be experts in ASD to serve our teens and their families. In fact, this is a great opportunity for us to go out into our communities and enlist the help of local organizations and support groups. In YALSA’s The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action (2014), libraries serve as a connector between teens and other community agencies. In fact, public libraries are one of a few public agencies that are dedicated to providing a better future for teens. By acknowledging that teens with ASD need resources, we are conveying to our community that we are dedicated in creating an environment of inclusion where teens of all abilities need services to thrive. Furthermore, by creating these partnerships, we are inviting these groups to be a part of the bigger picture, which is to expand our services to those who need the most. If we think about it, we are already providing services to the homeless, Veterans, and refugees so why not include patrons with ASD?
Library Services and Programs for Teens with ASD
Once we understand the fundamentals of ASD through research and our community partners, the next step is to ask our teens with ASD, and their parents, about what they would like to see in the library. Whether it’s conversations in passing, surveys, or focus groups, we can easily take this feedback to create services and programs that will meet the needs of our patrons. After gathering responses, we need to invite staff to participate in this endeavor as they will provide unique perspectives on how we can shape our services and programs. In all honesty, this is a very daunting task that will require a lot effort so don’t forget to bring our colleagues to the conversation. Once we have the support and feedback we need, we can create an array of resources that will not only meet the needs of our patrons, but the needs of our library as well.
Here are a couple of ideas that we can implement to make our libraries accessible to teens with ASD and cultivate a confident staff:
- Create a Autism Resource Center
- Put out flyers and brochures about ASD and local organizations that can connect teens and parents with resources
- Build a collection of parenting guides for children and teens with ASD
- Build a special collection of books and guides targeted to teens with ASD that will help them build life skills, social skills, and manage their emotions
- Create a special collection of teens books featuring character with ASD or written by authors with ASD
- Cultivate an online resource guide that teens and parents can consult 24/7
- Provide social stories to explain the different facets of the library:
- Locations of our collections
- What educational and recreational resources we provide
- Explain the library card application process as well as the checkout process
- Create a map detailing the locations of the restrooms, self-checkouts machines, water fountains, exits, and other areas of interest
- Provide teens with an emergency exit plan in case the library needs to be evacuated
- Invite community partners to train staff and help them become familiar with ASD and how they can confidently serve teens with ASD and connect them with resources. In fact, check out the Libraries & Autism website to see if you can schedule a training for your library
- Re-design your teen area to accommodate teens with ASD:
- Re-do the lighting where teens with light sensitivity are comfortable and the color of your walls and furniture should be neutral but fun (reduce the chance of sensory overload)
- Place visuals throughout the room to help teens navigate the room easily
- Install adaptive computer programs and devices where teens of all abilities are able to use the computers
- If teens have access to video game consoles, provide adaptive gaming hardware where teens of all abilities can use
- Turn popular programs into inclusive events where teens with ASD and neurotypical teens can interact and get to know each
- Enlist staff members who would be interested in attending The Next Chapter Book training where they will learn how to lead a book discussion for teens with ASD
- Create a volunteer program where neurotypical teens can mentor teens with ASD though meaningful interaction:
- Workshops where teens can practice social skills
- Events where teens with ASD can share their passions and their talents with other teens (i.e., art gallery, performance art concerts, etc.)
- Pair teens up to work on all kinds of projects in the library
- Create targeted programs for teens with ASD so they can interact with one another and learn they are not the alone
- Ask interested staff members to serve as ambassadors between the public and patrons with ASD (i.e., providing specialized reference services or being able to diffuse a difficult conversation)
- Create a special teen council where neurotypical and teems with ASD serve as program and services consultants
These are just a few examples of how we can provide services and programs for teens with ASD. As I mentioned ealier, the sky is literally the limit as to what we provide our teens, but we need to understand that this is just the beginning and our services and programs will evolve in time. The most important aspect to remember is that these services and programs rely on the feedback of our teens, neurotypical and teens with ASD so keep that line of communication open at all times.
This is a very exciting time to cultivate an environment where teens of all abilities are able to walk through are and be who they are without fearing judgment. Although the world has yet to catch on to the concept of inclusion and equity, libraries are one of few places where everyone is treated equally and respectfully. By providing services for teens with ASD, not only are fulfilling our mission to uphold the lifelong learning of our teen patrons, we are providing them with access to information to prepare them for adulthood. Furthermore, through programs and services, we are providing free access to new and exciting ideas, which is what libraries are all about. If you have been on the fence about this topic, I encourage you to jump off and get dirty. Once you figure out what you need to do, the process will not only be an experience of a lifetime, but it will bring hope and joy to a group that has always been overlooked.