In a dimly lit corner of the library, far away from the colorful children’s area, the beeping of the scanners and stacks of thousands of books, Amanda Coleman waited in silence, surrounded by bean bags and sensory pads.
“It’s Pikachu. I’m so glad you’re here,” the Athens-Limestone Public Library’s director of youth services said quietly, greeting 9-year-old Alaric Wolfe, who entered the beige-colored room wearing a Pokémon jacket.
Welcome to Spectrum Storytime — a program designed to reach one of the fastest growing segments of the population — children living with autism.
Across the United States, the number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum rose from 1 in 88 kids in 2008 to 1 in 59 kids in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While efforts to create experiences for children with autism have increased — cities built sensory playgrounds and splash pads, cinemas screen sensory films and first responders receive training on how to interact with individuals with autism — few opportunities exist at libraries.
With Spectrum Storytime, which started in 2016, the Athens-Limestone Public Library stands at the forefront of autism programming in the state.
“There are not a lot of places where we can go. There are not a lot of places where we are welcome,” said Alaric’s mother Jennifer Wolfe. “There have been times we have been at the grocery store and have been told off. They think I’m a bad mom or that he’s a brat, but they just don’t understand. To actually be invited somewhere and be wanted somewhere is so relieving for Alaric and myself.”
To try to understand autism, think about experiencing Disney World for the first time, Coleman said.
“There is so much to see, so much to take in and so many different sights and smells and people. It’s almost overwhelming. For many people living with autism, that is what every day is like. There is that total sensory overload,” Coleman said.
In creating Spectrum Storytime, the library worked to decrease those distractions. Instead of the brightly colored children’s room, the library selected a beige space, empty except for rows of chairs and a podium for the program.
“There is a method to our madness here. This little nook is neutral and not overwhelming, and the chairs provide us somewhat of a barrier between the doors leading outside,” Coleman said.
While each story time begins and ends with the same song — “This is the Way We Say ‘Hello’” and “This is the Way We Say Goodbye’” — so that the children know when to start listening and when to prepare to leave, the activities differ, ranging from reciting nursery rhymes to twirling scarves to running through bubbles to playing with puppets.
“I’ve noticed that the children may not be able to look me in the eye, but they can look my stuffed dog puppet in the eye,” Coleman said.
Like the puppets, every item serves a purpose. The bean bags provide the children with their own personal space, the felt schedule allows them to visibly track the order of activities and the sensory pads give them an item to occupy their hands.
“This is all about reaching the children where they are. 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 said.
The American Library Association awarded the library’s outreach efforts with the $5,000 Loleta D. Fyan Award for 2019. Stephen Wiberley, chair of the award’s jury, described Spectrum Storytime as a model for how libraries can provide programs for people with autism.
Athens-Limestone Public Library used the money for more resources and to hold a workshop. About 60 librarians from Alabama and Tennessee attended the September event.
“I think a lot of libraries are afraid to do this because it is different and they don’t know how to start or what to do or may not have that much experience working with children with autism. We hope to encourage other libraries and show them it is not scary. This is just story time. That’s all it is,” Coleman said.
As Coleman read aloud “After the Fall,” a story based on Humpty Dumpty, Alaric sat in his mother’s lap, humming and repeating phrases. He rarely looked at the book.
“A part of me feels like they are not listening, sometimes, but I know they are,” Coleman said. “The parents will tell me about how their children recite the songs and stories at home.”
After a recent program, Alaric Wolfe passed out paper towels to his mother and father at home so they could sing “The Popcorn Song” together — a song he learned from Coleman.
“This is one of my favorite times of the week. 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,” Coleman said.
The 30-minute program held at 4:30 p.m. every Monday is open to ages 18 and younger.