Libraries aren’t as quiet as they used to be, and librarians don’t go around shushing people, but patrons still typically expect everyone to go about their business silently and calmly.
That is not always easy and might be especially hard for an autistic child who might need to express their excitement or move around, giving their parents and caregivers a difficult choice: Go to the library and potentially face scorn from librarians and other patrons or stay away and have their kids miss out on storytimes and everything else the library has to offer for kids.
Librarians don’t want families to have to make that choice, said Hala Annabi, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School. “The librarians say, ‘We want to be inclusive and welcoming, but we don’t always know how to be. How do we identify and change problematic normative expectations and design programs to welcome and better serve autistic children and their families in our libraries?’” Annabi said.
In response, Annabi and iSchool Ph.D. candidate Milly Romeijn-Stout envisioned a research project to develop the Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit, a free, online resource released in May. It equips librarians across the country with research-based strategies to conduct inclusive programming, change their library environments, and learn how to interact with neurodistinct children.
Romeijn-Stout conducted focus group interviews and participatory design sessions with parents and caregivers to develop the toolkit, for which she developed inclusive early-literacy services training for youth-serving librarians. Resources to support the training include an environmental audit checklist for storytime spaces, program plans, book suggestions and activities. In collaboration with the research team, Romeijn-Stout also developed strategies for librarians to set expectations among patrons.
“There are social barriers where families don’t feel accepted in libraries and don’t feel welcome, so we’re really looking at how we can address those, as well as some of those environmental sensory barriers,” Romeijn-Stout said. “Kids can wiggle and jump and play without feeling like you’re disruptive in the program.”
The project originated in 2017, when Annabi and Jill Locke, an associate professor and co-director of the SMART Center, met with other faculty, representatives from the Arc and members of the community in advance of the UW hosting the 2018 Special Olympics. They discussed ways to welcome and include people who present social and behavioral differences, and they identified the needs of organizations and businesses seeking to be more inclusive of autistic people. Libraries were among those seeking strategies to serve neurodivergent patrons.
After conducting focus groups with the Pierce County Library System, Annabi and Locke found research was needed to improve libraries’ capacity to include autistic children and their families, especially in early-literacy programming. They recruited Romeijn-Stout and Michelle H. Martin, the iSchool’s Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services, to collaborate and received a $476,000 grant in 2020 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop the toolkit.
Romeijn-Stout, who had earned her MLIS at the iSchool in 2014, worked as a children’s librarian and struggled to make headway on inclusive programming for autistic kids. When she came back to pursue her Ph.D., she hoped to tackle the problem through a smaller research project, but the grant allowed her to scale up her ambitions.
“We were really able to increase the amount of participants that we had as a part of this and increase what we were able to provide,” she said. “This is going to reach so many more people and provide so much more for these early-literacy services.”
The research team also includes iSchool Ph.D. student Christine Moeller and MLIS student Tara Lanphar. Moeller is the doctoral student lead for a follow-up project, which will research libraries’ capacity to support the careers of neurodivergent librarians, who frequently face barriers to inclusion in library workplaces. This project is also funded by a $491,000 IMLS grant received in 2022.
In more than two years of research developing the toolkit, the team worked closely with Pierce County libraries, the King County Library System and Timberland Regional Library. They also reached out nationwide and incorporated feedback from librarians in 42 states.
As part of the rollout of the toolkit, the library partners will receive sensory kits with items such as noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses and Fidgets to help make libraries more accessible for autistic children and their families. The researchers are launching an email campaign and partnering with the American Library Association to promote the toolkit to library systems across the country.
Annabi said the resource will help librarians set a tone of acceptance, where patrons are welcoming of families with children who behave differently from normative societal expectations.
“It’s a much broader change that needs to happen,” she said. “The toolkit is a starting place for early-literacy programming and storytime with supports to create a welcoming environment.”