Storytimes for Autistic Children

In early May, a teacher contacted me about bringing her class for a visit.  The teacher seemed a little nervous on the phone and explained that her students were special- all the them had different forms of autism- many on the lower-functioning end of the autistic spectrum.  She was worried about how the students would behave and whether I could “handle” them.  I assured her that the library is a welcoming place, that we no longer expect absolute silence in our buildings and that I was more than happy to meet her kids.

I decided to do a bit of research on autism, the autism spectrum, and teaching methods before their visit.  What I came away with were the following basic guidelines:

  • – Keep things simple and explain what you are doing/are about to do.
  • – If possible, use picture cards to show how the program will procede.
  • – Do not worry if children appear to be “zoning out.”
  • – Keep the same routine/outline for each program.

I have since done several programs with this particular group and have found that there are some key differences between these story programs and my usual pre-school storytimes.  My “usual” program weaves together as many multi-sensory elements as possible. I may tell a story and use a puppet at the same time.  Or sing a song while using flannel characters to illustrate the action.  For some autistic children, this multi-sensory approach can be overstimulating.  (Keep in mind that every child with autism is different and responds differently to visual and aural activities.  These are simply my own observations.)

For these special storytimes, I begin by showing the children pictures of what we will do, and in what order.  For example: I begin by holding up a picture of children singing and explain that we will first sing a welcome song.  Next, I hold up a picture of an adult reading to a group of children and explain that after the song, I will read a book to them.  Being told the order of things seems to help the children settle and feel more comfortable.

As with my toddler programs, I do not take it personally when children appear to be ignoring me.  Autistic children may not be able to look at me or the pictures while listening to the story.  Thus, it may appear that they are gazing off into space, but they are actually listening quite intensely.

Physical contact- even a high-five- can be a very uncomfortable or even terrifying experience for children with certain types of autism.   As with all children, it is important for adults to respect their personal space.  I make an extra effort in this regard with my autistic kids.

Without a doubt, doing the storytimes with autistic students have been some of my favorite programs in my career so far.  The kids are smart, surprising, and each time I see them, I learn something new.  I think I learn much more from them then they do from me.

Since I’m new to programming with special needs in mind, I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

Two books that I found particularly helpful:

Activity Schedules for Children with Autism by Lynn E. McClannahan

Making Autism a Gift: Inspiring Children to Believe in Themselves and Lead Happy, Fulfilling Lives by Robert E. Cimera


6 thoughts on “Storytimes for Autistic Children

  1. I have recently written and published a children’s book, Howard the Fish, based on a theme pertinent to autism. One of my company’s goals is to increase the availability of storytimes especially for kids on the spectrum. I love what you are doing, and I thank you for sharing what has worked for you. We will certainly keep your ideas in mind as we move ahead. I would love to donate a book for you to read at one of these special storytimes. Please contact me through my website at with your mailing address, and I will have one sent to you.

  2. Hello, again. Have you read Joanna Keating-Velasco’s A is for Autism, F is for friend? I think it would be an excellent resource for you. Joanna has the gift of “getting it” when it comes to autism, and her book reflects that. Although her book is written for elementary children, I have found it to be invaluable for me.

  3. Kiera,
    What a wonderful post. My colleague, Julie Shore, mentioned this program you set up offering a story time for kids with autism. So often, as an author of kids books which teach about autism, I am told by mothers that their children are not only not wanted at community activities, but sometimes actually barred from attending. One mom who has recently started bringing her son to our church’s VBS was so pleased to see her son who has Asperger Syndrome completely accepted into the VBS program as a vital member of the kids. His challenges and gifts were embraced and he came home every day excitedly anticipating the next day (a rare moment in the life of a child who has been shunned or bullied at community activities).

    I not only am impressed at you starting this program, but am impressed that you took the time to better understand how just a few slight adjustments (that can also work with “typical peers”) made your program a wonderful, accepting and understanding activity for kids who live on the spectrum.

    1 out of 150 kids in the US is now being diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Over 1.5 million people ini the US has autism. Just taking a few minutes to better understand the disorder can do a world of difference in these kids lives in terms of communities having understanding and acceptance.

    Again, thank you. If I can be of any assistance, you can reach me through your website at I have one book currently out that is geered toward elementary school typical peers which introduces kids to autism. This week a new book is being released geered at middle school peers.

    Joanna K-V

  4. Hello, thank you for posting this and all of your work and compassion towards incorporating (including) children with autism into library experiences. It is a wonderful and a very needed endeavor.

    Thank you,

  5. Thanks to everyone for your support. I consider myself lucky to be paid to do fun, silly, storytimes. Including as many children as possible- no matter what their reading level or abilities- is always the goal. I’ll be having another storytime with my autistic kids soon and will be using the book sent to me by Julie- Howard the Fish. I’ll be sure to post all about it!

  6. Pingback: Picture Cards, Howard the Fish, Lion Pose, and More Adventures in Programming for Autistic Kids « Library Voice

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