The first few months of autism friendly libraries

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Sarah Mears, Chair of ASCEL, blogs

My name is Sarah Mears.  I am Chair of ASCEL– the national Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians. I am also Library Services Manager for Essex County Council.

I learned recently that 1 in 10 of the population are likely to be somewhere on the ASD spectrum. With 282 million library visits to libraries each year, that means that a significant number of library visitors will be affected by autism.

This is one of the reasons that, back in June, we partnered with Dimensions and the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) to launch our autism friendly libraries initiative around the UK.

We were fortunate that the Arts Council England provided funding for a training film and resources for librarians,  such as social stories, posters and flyers.

We want the general public to encourage their local libraries to become more autism friendly. The modifications are simple, easy and free – so why not speak to your local library today?

The initial idea for autism friendly libraries came after we invited Dimensions to speak at the ASCEL conference in 2015.  We were inspired by Managing Director Lisa Hopkins’ suggestion to work with Dimensions to create a film that would share autism friendly messages across the public library network.

Our priority in these first few months has been to promote the film widely ensuring it is seen by as many staff as possible. The summer is a time when thousands of children visit the nation’s libraries to take part in the Summer Reading Challenge and so we have had a brilliant opportunity to raise awareness among staff and the young volunteers who support the Challenge.

Alongside the film, Dimensions produced a Social Story template and a library map template. Library services are able to adapt these for their own libraries. ASCEL also produced a Social Story specifically for the Summer Reading Challenge. Libraries can adapt this to share with families.

Boy reading in library

In Essex we have developed an implementation plan, starting with showing the film to staff; sharing it with County Councilors and Commissioners for Health and Children’s Services.

We’ve encouraged our libraries to develop their own social stories and have promoted the Summer Reading Challenge version.

And, we have now recruited nine staff to represent autism friendly libraries, who will  work together to support their local libraries develop new partnerships and reach out to families; ensure staff understand and are committed to the messages of the film and  look at simple things they can do to make a difference.

Promoting the film nationally and locally on social media has generated a lot of interest, enabling us to promote to local autism support groups and those who work with them.

I was invited to attend the Adults with Autism partnership board in Essex and am building links with the Children’s Team. Essex Children’s Centres often deliver services from libraries and so all their staff have been asked to watch the film too.

At the other end of the country, St Helen’s Libraries have developed a social story and a map of the Central Library.

They have purchased ear defenders and distraction toys and have been working with a nine year old boy and his family who are providing feedback on the social story and the work done in the Central Library. Our ASCEL colleague in St Helens is now a member of the St Helens Autism Services Development Group.

We have also shared the film with companies who specialise in library design encouraging them to incorporate autism friendly practices into new library designs.

The film also gave us the opportunity to highlight the good practice that already exists in library services – Leeds Libraries’ Boardmaker project; Solihull’s library walk-through; Gateshead Libraries’ Autism Information Hub, Somerset libraries’ Autism Collection and Coventry who are rolling out an autism friendly approach library by library.

We know this is just the start, but the film has acted as a catalyst which, combined with the enthusiasm of library staff, will ensure significant changes in the experience people with autism have in public libraries.

So what are you waiting for? With your help, we can encourage every library around the UK to become more autism friendly!