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No silence please – campaigners launch network of autism-friendly libraries

Posted on 13/06/2016 by Aminul Hoque


Restricting speech can distress those with autism as much as excessive noise. A new initiative aims to make England’s public libraries more welcoming

Being judged, stared at or told to be quiet are among the reasons that people with autism do not visit their local library, according to recent research.

A survey of 460 people with autism and their families by social care providerDimensions suggests that 90% of people with autism would use their library more if adjustments were made. One young survey respondent says: “Please be friendly and nonjudgmental. Don’t be shocked if I’m noisy and unpredictable. Smile, and please be nice to my mum, going out can be stressful for us all.”

Another explains: “This is the way I am and sometimes I find it difficult not to talk to myself in the library so please be patient with me. Don’t keep staring at me. Please be kind to me.”

Responding to concerns, Dimensions and the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) are collaborating to develop a network of autism-friendly libraries. The aim of the initiative – which is launching at the annual seminar of the Society of Chief Librarians – is to turn England’s 3,000 or so public libraries into more welcoming venues for people who have autism.

The research points to a need for staff and library users to be more tolerant, and simple adaptations to support the sensory sensitivities associated with autism. Improvements suggested by individuals and their families include designated quieter areas, better signposting, easily available maps of the library and autism-specific training for staff.

The drive, backed by £7,000 from the Arts Council, includes free resources for staff such as training videos, fact sheets, posters and social stories (short, informative descriptions of situations, so people know what to expect when they visit). The work in libraries builds on the model already developed by Dimensions with cinemas, many of which now offer monthly autism-friendly film screenings with subdued lighting and volume and a relaxed environment.

It’s opening up the library as a space for more people and breaking down barriers locally – it’s about social inclusion

Sorrelle Clements, Coventry libraries service development manager

Talking about autism-friendly libraries, Dimensions managing director Lisa Hopkins says: “The most important thing is that people who work there are informed about autism and are tolerant; they allow people to behave in ways they want to behave.”

Sarah Mears, ASCEL chair, hopes the project will encourage individual libraries “to help more people to visit by adopting autism-friendly approaches”. While many libraries are improving accessibility and awareness – holding autism-friendly sessions, for example – the new project aims to encourage consistent and nationwide good practice through staff training and an agreed set of guidelines shaped by families.

Practical tips include ideas such as offering a space where “people with autism can wind down following a difficult time or find some quiet space”. Equally useful is a sensory space with low lighting, interesting textures and calm music. Another recommendation involves raising awareness among library workers that people with autism have varying communication skills so staff should talk to them directly, not to the person accompanying them. It advises them to speak precisely, avoiding broad, open-ended questions.

Information included in the project says that while a quiet library environment suits people with autism who often experience sensory overload, they may make noise themselves. In addition, libraries are not the silent places they once were; amid funding cuts and a downturn in borrowing, many are reinventing themselves as meeting places – hosting toddler storytelling groups, for example.

While excessive noise may be unsettling for someone with autism, an environment where they cannot make any noise is too restrictive. The resource explains: “People might talk to themselves or others, they are easily excitable, they might move around. You should make it clear that your library is autism-friendly, and that includes tolerance of certain levels of noise.”

Tile Hill library in Coventry, a modern library with around 2,000 visitors a week, is piloting the kind of autism-friendly approaches outlined in the campaign. Staff are working with autism support specialists at the local authority and consulting individuals, parents and families to research adjustments. Changes should be in place by the summer, and are likely to include more relaxed and flexible seating areas and a coding club aimed to encourage computer-enthusiasts with autism. The library is also producing an accessible online film enabling people to find out what to expect from a visit to the library before they arrive.

Coventry libraries service development manager Sorrelle Clements says the move is part of the area’s ongoing drive to encourage the entire community to use the library. She adds: “It’s opening up the library as a space for more people, breaking down barriers locally; it’s about social inclusion. Perhaps we’ll have a library visitor who doesn’t have any experience of autism, but through coming here, meets someone with autism.”

Hopkins hopes the library initiative, on top of existing approaches in cinemas and theatres, might be an autism-friendly “call to action” for other sectors. Libraries, she adds, should be for everyone: “People have the right to be full citizens, doing the same things that we all do.”

Source: The Guardian