A Case for Sensory Storytime

By Christopher Coolman

If you’ve ever spent time in the children’s area of your library, you’ve probably seen them. The parents that are hovering much too closely to their children while wearing an expression of embarrassment. We know these kids well. They shout out at odd intervals, they are non-verbal, and they won’t look at you when you say hello. These are your patrons who exist somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I sympathize. I understand the feeling of my child being thrown into a meltdown due to something I can’t see. He was the one in the back of the room, pacing while the other children sat and listened to the story (I later learned this is called stimming). I was the parent who was angry and embarrassed when the lady conducting storytime stopped what she was doing to get my quiet, pacing child to sit down and be still at the small age of three.

We like to think of libraries as an open, welcoming place but to many people with special needs we aren’t. Sure, we comply with ADA and have books for people with vision issues (braille or audio books), but many parents feel that it’s difficult to bring their autistic children to the library because of the unpredictability of the experience and the public’s view of libraries as quiet places.

When my family’s incident at storytime happened, I wasn’t working in the library field, and my wife and I were still finding our way through the world of autism. I did not yet know what stimming was (the repetition of physical movement, sounds, or movement of objects in order to self soothe). I knew that expecting children to sit still for that amount of time was not developmentally appropriate.  Something needed to change.

The sensory storytime movement began organically. Various spots around the country saw the need to reach out to this underserved population in their communities. As the idea spread and gained strength, people adapted and revised the ideas that came before. From this grew Sensory Storytimes, special needs resource centers, and other autism-related programming. These are vital programs to offer your communities as the families are not likely to come asking for them yet.

Once I started working in a public library, I knew what to do. Based on my family’s experience at that storytime eight years ago, I created my own Sensory Storytime. The first ones were small, attended by families from my regular storytimes who had children on the spectrum. These were the kids who were usually so overwhelmed they clung to their moms, and only began to come out of their shells after a few months, and only during playtime. That first Sensory Storytime was a game changer for me. As we started the opening song, the two kids present, who I had never heard sung before, sang every word. Every jaw dropped. Since then, Sensory Storytime has grown to include two storytimes and will soon be in all Yuma County Library District branches.

I realized that we need to bring their world to us, not bring them into ours. They get enough of that during their day-to-day existence.  Sensory Storytime exists as an escape, a place to be themselves at their own speed, and we are lucky enough to be able to do that through the common love of books.

Christopher Coolman is Library Assistant 1/Youth Services at the Foothills Library in Yuma.


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