A library in Athens, Alabama has introduced Spectrum Storytime, a program designed for children on the autism spectrum. Launched in 2016 by the Athens-Limestone Public Library, Spectrum Storytime features a variety of activities in a space designed to be calming to children with autism, who often have extreme sensitivity to touch, noise, and other stimuli.
Autism diagnoses appear to be on the rise, with 1 in 59 children living with the condition in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past several years, many organizations and institutions, including airports and major sports arenas, have taken steps to accommodate those with autism through staff training and sensory-friendly areas. Yet most libraries are still limited in providing opportunities for visitors on the spectrum.
Speaking to US News.com this month, Amanda Coleman, director of youth services for the Athens-Limestone Library, said she understands the sensory overload experienced on a daily basis by many people on the autism spectrum, particularly children.
"There is so much to see, so much to take in and so many different sights and smells and people,” Coleman said. “It's almost overwhelming. For many people living with autism, that is what every day is like. There is that total sensory overload.”
With that in mind, the library’s story time area is designed to be safe, quiet, and secure for children participating in the half-hour program. The area features bean bags that provide each child with their own personal space, a felt schedule allows them to track the order of activities, and sensory pads give them an item to occupy their hands.
The library’s outreach efforts have been bolstered by the American Library Association, which provided them with the 5,000 Loleta D. Fyan Award for 2019. Coleman emphasized the uniqueness and individuality of each child on the autism spectrum.
“This is all about reaching the children where they are,” she said. “One thing I've learned is if you meet one person with autism then you've met one person with autism. That's it. Every single person living with autism is completely different and reacts differently. There is no one size fits all.”
Coleman added that, while she sometimes has doubts about whether the children are actually listening, she believes that they are, based on what parents have told her about their children reciting the songs and stories they learned through the program at home.
“This is one of my favorite times of the week,” she said. “All of our patrons are special, but there is a special place in our hearts for these kids. They are so special and precious to us.”