Autism/Library programs for autistic preschoolers
I am the head of Youth Services at a public library and have been asked to provide a storyhour for autistic preschoolers. I was wondering if there were any reference materials that you could point me towards that would help me to provide a productive program for a small number of children? I was a music teacher before this and use alot of music in my programs already. I know that they respond great to this and will use music every session. But what about length of time, do I use crafts or not, etc.
Thank you for any help you can give!
What an excellent program this will be. And combining your musical background with your knowledge of children's literature and child development will really help.
You're already familiar with preschoolers and what they like. Children with autism are kids as well, it's just that they might perceive the world a bit differently.
As with all four year olds, their attention span is not that long. I'd suggest that you cut your regular storyhour about 15 minutes shorter than usual.
While all the kids in your group may have autism, they will definitely not be a uniform group. Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning that there is a wide variation in the extent of the autistic symptoms as well as a wide variation in intellectual ability. Some kids with autism will have average or above intelligence while a larger proportion will have some degree of mental disability.
Some kids with Asperger's Syndrome may have a prodigious vocabulary but many kids with autism do not use verbal language. But you can't assume that just because a child is not speaking to you that he or she does not understand what you're saying.
Most people with autism spectrum disorders take in information more readily that they see rather than what they hear. That's good news for storyhour because children's picture books are full of meaningful images. Try to ensure that each child has a good view of the pictures, that visuals are a major part of what you do and that the amount of talking is less that you'd normally do.
It helps if you think of autism as a processing disorder where the child will generally have difficulty dealing with more than one type of sensory input at a time. For some kids, they can look or listen but not do both well at the same time. So when you're reading, many of the kids may not be looking at you or appear to be paying attention but in reality, you may have their full concentration. Ask their moms. They may report that hours or days later their child repeated part of the story you read verbatim.
New situations create a great deal of anxiety for people with autism. You can help this by setting up your storyhour in a predictable, routine fashion. Plan out how the kids should enter the room, where they put their coats, where their moms go, the structure the storyhour will take, etc.
It would greatly help the kids if you made a picture schedule of how the time will go. For instance, your first picture could be a picture of coats on hangers, the next picture of their chairs or spots on the carpet, then a picture of someone singing, then children listening to a story, etc. For free pictures that you could use and a explanation of why and how to use such visual schedules, check out http://www.do2learn.com
While you need patience and flexibility when working with any four year olds, you'll need to be even more flexible with autistic preschoolers. Each may respond differently. Some may love the singing part and join in wholeheartedly. If musical instruments are involved, those kids with sensory sensitivities may become overwhelmed. They may sit apart quietly or become agitated.
Talk ahead of time to the parents as they know their children best. If you had a visual schedule made up ahead of time, hand it out to parents before the first session so that the parents can prepare their child with what to expect and how they should behave. Encourage the parents to feel free to have their child participate or back away from parts that make them uncomfortable, especially in the initial sessions.
While a surprise party might tickle most preschoolers, it would not go over well for kids with autism. Prepare them and let their parents know of anything out of the usual you'll be doing. A party's fine; just not a surprise party.
Often storyhour sessions include some type of craft. That's fine as long as you're aware that fine motor skills are generally a weakness for kids with autism. That does not mean that they should not do a craft or that they won't get better over time, but just that their skills may not be what you'd assume for a child of that age. And, some of the kids will be tactile-defensive and could become very upset at getting glue on their hands, touching certain substances, etc. Again, the parents will be a helpful resource for you.
You may not find that this is a quiet a group as you're used to during storyhour. Some kids with autism make noises. The noises may not mean that the child is not listening or enjoying himself. Some will find it very difficult to sit still. They may rock, bounce or move around.
For some kids, it may be easier to remain seated if they have a fidget toy - something to fiddle with in their hands as they listen. Others may be helped by holding a heavy pillow in their laps, wearing a weighted vest, snuggling under a heavy blanket (old fur coats can work well). Others will feel better sitting in a confined space, such as the plastic cube chairs found in some preschool or kindergarten settings.
Many kids with autism are sensitive to touch. Talk to the parents to learn how each child will react to your touch or that of other children. Asking the group to hold hands may create discomfort for some of the kids. Sitting or standing where they may touch each other may also cause problems.
If the kids are to sit on the floor, you might consider marking each child's spot in masking tape with an X or a border around their area.
I realize that you said your storyhour will be for kids with autism. You might want to consider the possibility of having some kids with autism and some more typical kids. Often a heterogeneous group is beneficial, with all kids learning from each other. The kids with autism would be observing their peer role models.
The parents may be able to provide you with more suggestions tailored to the specific needs/interests of their children.
I'd appreciate hearing how your project goes.
Best of luck,
Sharon A. Mitchell, B.A., B.Ed., M.A.