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: