Back in 2008 I began blogging over at ALSC about doing programs for children with autism. I felt then, and still do, that is is important for libraries to provide storytimes that are distinct from our usual preschool storytimes for children with sensory issues. Children’s Librarian Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski also did a fantastic series on the ALSC Blog in 2009 on Programming for Children’s with Special Needs.
Since 2008, when the rising number of children being diagnosed with various forms of autism began gaining national attention, few libraries were actively providing programs specially designed for these children. Now, a Google search of “library storytime autism” pulls up over 80,000 results. Yes!
It makes me so happy to think about the hundreds of children and parents who are being welcomed with open arms into libraries across the country because of this type of specialized programming. Every single time I offer a Spectrum Storytime, I am bowled over at the gratitude and appreciation from parents and caregivers. So many moms and dads of children with autism feel uncomfortable, judged, and nervous in most libraries. Creating a time and a space just for them is such a small, easy step that can lead to a whole new community of users.
At my library, we’ve been offering Spectrum Storytime as a once-a-month program on a Saturday morning. It’s a very laid back, low-stress environment in which we sing a few songs, read a story, and engage in a sensory-rich activity. While I’m very proud of the work we have done together meeting once per month, I’ve been itching to do a weekly series for some time. So, I am incredibly excited that my library will be offering a 5-week session this April in celebration of Autism Awareness month. Since this will be my first opportunity to do cumulative projects that stretch from week to week, I’ve been rethinking my usual program plan. I want to keep the basic structure that the kids and parents have come to know and rely on, but add some elements that build on each other throughout the session. I’ve decided to keep the “storytime” part the same, but design the sensory activities to create works of art that will begin in week 1 and conclude in week 5.
Below is is my program plan for storytime itself and the sensory activities that will change from week to week. As always, please feel free to steal it whole or in part. I would also love any suggestions or ideas!
Targeted audience: children with autism (roughly between 3 and 8 years old) with at least one parent/caregiver. Siblings are welcome, too.
Length of program: 20 minutes “active” storytime, 10 to 15 minutes free play.
Setup: Set up a few defined “zones” in the room. I use three: a storytime area which features different kinds of chairs in a semi circle; an activity area set up with the tables and supplies we will use for the sensory activity; and a free area that is calm, plain, and set up so that children can “escape” if the other areas prove overstimulating at any point.
In the storytime area, you can lay out some fun sensory items. There are some wonderful sensory toys available from Lakeshore Learning, but you need not spend a lot of cash. Super cheap but awesome sensory items include bubble wrap, homemade discovery bottles, or dollar store finds.
Depending on the kids I have in a particular session, I usually have some music playing in the background at the very beginning of the program and during our sensory activity. Some of my favorites include Joao Gilberto and Elizabeth Mitchell.
Welcome Song: “Hello Today and How Are You?” (to the tune of “London Bridge”)
Hello today and how are you?
How are you? How are you?
Hello today and how are you?
I’m fine, thank you!
(We sing our welcome song at least twice and I talk about the social component of greetings in everyday conversation.)
Fingerplay: Any old one you like! When beginning a session with new children and families, I usually opt for something that every parent knows and can do with me (like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”) As I get to know the group better, I sometimes introduce a new fingerplay (like “Two Little Blackbirds.”)
Stretch: Reach for the Stars
Stand up tall, reach for the stars (stretch arms above head and wiggle fingers)
There goes Jupiter (reach arms across body to the the right)
There goes Mars (reach arms across body to the left)
This is a quick, simple stretch that is great for gross motor skills and also lets kids and parents know that moving around is okay during storytime. Some of the children in my program are explorers. They will wander around the room during the entire program. And that’s okay. Other kids are nearly immobile the whole time, but with some gentle encouragement can be persuaded to stand up and stretch with us. During our stretches, I like to remind the group that they can stretch, walk, and explore at any time.
Book: For the past few sessions I’ve been using multiple copies of bright, rhyming books. Last session I chose Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. It is fun to read (or sing) aloud, has nice big illustrations, and my library owns many copies so I was able to give each child their own copy to read. This session, I am using Swimmy by Leo Lionni.
Physical Activity: You can do the stretch again (Reach for the Stars) or hand out egg shakers to shake in rhythm to a song. At the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, they use a sensory walk. Children walk hand-in-hand with their grownup around the circular track. If you have the money to invest (and the storage space), this can be a fun gross motor skill activity.
Week 1: Making textured paper
Cut out large squares from paper bags or rough craft paper. Using spray bottles filled with water (can also mix in some watercolor paint), have children spray the sheet until they are all wet. (The squeezing of a spray bottle is a fine motor skill activity. Some children will need assistance.) After the paper is wet, ask the children to crumple up their paper in to a little ball. Squeeze the ball of paper so that excess water drips out. Ask the kids, how does the wet paper feel? Now, ask them to gently unfurl their paper balls and smooth it out using the flat part of their hands. How does that feel different?
Hang each paper or lay flat to dry. Next week we will use this paper again!
Week 2: Watercolor Washes
Using the paper created last week, set up and demonstrate how to use watercolors to cover the paper. You can use regular watercolor sets or watercolor pencils. I prefer using pencils, since they seem to be easier to wield than brushes. After they draw on the paper with the watercolor pencils, use damp sponges to smudge and smear the colors. Make sure to demonstrate this effect beforehand so that the children are expecting this change. (It can be pretty traumatic to see your masterpiece in pencil dissolve into watery smudges if you aren’t prepared!)
Week 3: Fruit Stamping
Building upon the artwork created last week, lay out slices of fruit and vegetables and washable paints. Use the fruits as stamps. Ripe oranges, broccoli heads, halved cabbage, and the skin of a pineapple work wonderfully. Encourage the children to use their sense of smell and touch. How does the orange smell? How does it feel in your hand?
Week 4: Bubble Painting
Again using our canvases from previous weeks, tape them to the wall or use easels. Mix blowing bubbles with a small amount of food coloring or washable paint. Ask the children to blow bubbles at the paper. When the bubbles pop, they will create watercolor-like circles and drips. The fine motor skill of blowing bubbles can be challenging for some children. To aid in this, buy a variety of wands in different sizes. You may also want to get a few handheld bubble guns. Discount School Supply sells a pretty cool-looking product called Bubble Powder. I have yet to try it, but I may give it a go this session.
Week 5: Framing our artwork!
There are two ways to frame your group’s art: the “cheap” way and the even cheaper way. The “cheap” way is by purchasing some pre-cut mats and mat frames. Have the kids decorate the frames and then use double-stick tape to attach and secure the artwork. The cheaper way takes a bit more time and pre-planning. Start saving up good scraps of cardboard. Measuring the artwork beforehand, pre-cut the cardboard into mats and frames. This can be time-consuming since you’ll have to use an razor blade and be pretty patient. If you have the extra cardboard and the time, it will save you some bucks.
And that’s my 5-Week Plan! Please share your thoughts and suggestions for other sensory programs. I’d love to hear about what other librarians are doing in their programs for children with autism.