11 May 2022

How libraries can become more ASD-inclusive

Guest post by Aodhán Keegan, DCU Library

This article is a summary of the key points from my Capstone Project I conducted during my Masters in Library and Information Studies in UCD from 2020 to 2021. My research topic concerned the role of public and academic libraries as inclusive spaces for the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) community. In this article, I will focus on how both public and academic librarians may appreciate ASD as an opportunity for professional growth instead of an obstacle, and how the library can function as an ASD-inclusive establishment.

Throughout my research, I consulted various articles that were oriented around how well librarians understood ASD, and how they could incorporate their knowledge into their professional practice. In one of these articles, a group of public librarians in Australia participated in an online autism awareness training session in 2020. Afterwards, they developed the confidence to support library users with ASD, as they were better informed about autism and the signs to look out for in an affected user (Paynter, Simpson, O’Leary et al, 2020).

Other articles suggested that public librarians should concentrate on their forms of communication with library users with ASD. Akin and MacKinney (2004) suggest scaffolding communication when interacting with children with ASD. This entails the librarian beginning by asking the user yes or no questions before proceeding to more nuanced questions regarding their information search. This method ensures that the child is not overwhelmed during their information search. It must also be acknowledged that the user(s) with ASD may act as aloof or disinterested in the library, but this should not be regarded as antisocial behaviour. It is merely their adaptation to the sensory stimuli of this environment.

The approach that academic librarians may adopt is vastly different to their public counterparts. This evolves around the consent of the student with ASD to be forthcoming about their information needs and their desired study space. In the articles I consulted, most academic librarians regarded these students to be ‘intellectually capable of pursuing higher level education’ as well as having the confidence to ask for help (Shea & Derry, 2019, p. 327). Hence, it is the imperative of the academic librarian to give the student with ASD the prerogative to navigate their options of using the library to suit their additional needs.

However, that is not to say the academic librarian adopts a passive role to the needs of students with ASD. Whenever a lecturer refers a student to them for support, they must regard them as individuals presenting with their own challenges. They must recognise that no two students on the spectrum have the same needs, thus an unbiased and non-judgmental manner must be adopted to support them. As stated previously, the student with ASD knows what they are seeking, and they are self-assured enough to realise and address this.

There is a general assumption that libraries are naturally safe havens for people with autism spectrum disorder due to their traditionally quiet environments. However, in a survey conducted by Lou-Ellen Kiely (2018, p. 42) on library attendance amongst people with ASD and their guardians in Ireland, forty-four percent never availed of their local library services, with eighteen percent complaining that their local library was unaccommodating to their sensory needs. To tackle this problematic gap, efforts have been made in America to promote public libraries as ASD-inclusive. Librarians have put up visual displays of ‘autism-friendly’ logos on the front doors of their workplace and have collaborated with other libraries to host weekly sensory programming for families.

For ASD students to experience a positive relationship with their academic library, school librarians may support secondary school students with ASD to develop their information seeking skills in advance of attending third-level education. In their research, Ennis-Cole and Smith (2011) surveyed school librarians who were teaching students with ASD to develop their assistive technology skills. To quote a surveyed librarian, ‘we can assist autistic students in the same ways we assist other students. We recommend materials. We teach selection. We model reading. We mentor’ (Ennis-Cole & Smith, 2011, p. 93).

As this article asserts, to support the ASD community, the public librarian must be astute to how they may respond to the sensory stimuli of the library environment. As many students with ASD are generally well developed both socially and intellectually, the academic librarian must cultivate a professional rapport with these students when supporting them in navigating the library. For both the public and academic sectors, advocacy for the ASD community in the public library environment and preparing prospective third-level students with ASD to develop their information seeking skills are two examples of solutions to combat the additional challenges people with ASD typically experience when accessing library services.

Akin, L. & MacKinney, D. (2004). Autism, Literacy, and Libraries: The 3 Rs = Routine, Repetition, and Redundancy. Children and Libraries, 2(2), 35–43. ISSN: 1542-9806

Ennis-Cole, D. & Smith, D., (2011). Assistive technology and autism: Expanding the technology leadership role of the school librarian. School Libraries Worldwide, 17(2), 86-98. ISSN: 1023-9391

Kiely, L. (2018). ‘The role of Irish Public Libraries in Assisting Users with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Benefits, Challenges and other Considerations’ (Masters Dissertation, Dublin Business School, Dublin). ISSN: 10788/3489

Paynter, J., Simpson, K., Wicks, R., Westerveld, M., O’Leary, K. & Hurley, A. (2020). Development of an Online Training Program for Public Library Staff to Deliver Autism Friendly Story Time Sessions. Journal Of The Australian Library And Information Association 2020, 69(4), 496–522. DOI: 10.1080/24750158.2020.1836949

Shea, G. & Derry, S. (2019). Academic Libraries and Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Do We Know? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 45(1), 326–331. DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2019.04.007


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