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Every day, 4.2 million Americans visit a library. Are you one of them?
Almost every town in America has a public library, but many families of children with special needs shy away from libraries, often for behavioral reasons. These are the families who could benefit the most from the library!
The truth is that patrons with disabilities are welcome at public libraries everywhere. Some libraries even offer a free delivery service to homebound patrons or a postage-paid books-by-mail service.
My family visits the local library at least once a week. Even before my son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, the library was an essential part of his sensory integration and introduction to social skills and life skills.
Here are 10 life lessons that any family can learn at the library.
1. Library Behavior
I’m not saying that library visits are always peaceful, intellectual experiences – quite the opposite. In his hyperactive phase, my son was a screamer with an irresistible attraction to doors equipped with fire alarms. He ran wildly up and down stairs, through “employee-only” areas, in and out of elevators, and once got his hand stuck in an elevator door at the library. The solution was not avoidance – he needed more frequent visits. There was only one way for him to learn, and he learned.
The public library is an ideal place to start learning about public behavior, because the environment is generally quiet but designed for exploration. People learning how to speak can rehearse and practice scripts to request materials. Employees and volunteers are usually looking for ways to help patrons.
2. Find the play area
Most libraries have a children’s area with toys where a higher level of noise is allowed. It is OK to visit the library for the cool toys – the books will get noticed eventually!
3. Get a library card
A library card is a physical reminder of community involvement. The only requirements for a library card are the ability to write one’s name and proof of residency from a guardian. The library card allows patrons to use technology on site and check out materials in their own name. Acquiring a library card gave my son a sense of freedom and independence, and it was an important step in self-determination. By the way, I have all of his due date reminders and overdue notices sent to my email address so we can keep track of everything.
4. Executive function skills
Every week, we talk about our library visit:
- What needs to be returned?
- What would you like to look for?
- How will you find it?
- Will there be special programs today?
- Will we go upstairs or stay in the children’s area?
- Do we have extra time to use the computers?
All of these questions help formulate a plan. Organizing the information makes the visit successful, because it establishes a cognitive process. When the cognitive process is repeated many times, it becomes a habit and eventually can be generalized to other areas of life. That is how my son learned executive function skills.
5. Finding materials
Even adults sometimes have trouble finding the biography section and deciphering the Dewey Decimal System. But it can be learned with the right motivation! First I taught my son to go to the library catalog and type in the keyword. Then he learned to write down the location and call number. Then I showed him how to read markers at the end of every row of books and find a book on a shelf. Somehow it is always a surprise to discover an entire shelf devoted to one topic. Because he looks for a book or DVD on a high-interest topic, he had the desire to learn – finding the item became its own reward.
To increase the challenge for my son, we often visit libraries in neighboring towns. Each library has a different layout and different titles on preferred topics. Even the smaller satellite libraries in larger cities have something interesting to offer!
6. Emerging literacy
The main lesson that my children have learned on our family library visits is that my husband and I value reading. They see us select a variety of books, they see us read, they hear us talking about what we are reading and would like to read in the future.
The library has books for all reading levels, including wordless picture books and audiobooks. My son often checks out a book along with the corresponding audiobook so that he can follow the text more fluently. For children who struggle with emerging literacy, frequent library visits are the best way to overcome fears, experiment with new material and become comfortable with books.
7. Developing interests
Dr. Temple Grandin has often written that supporting a person’s unique interests is the first step to teaching job skills and life skills. The library is the perfect place to pursue those interests with books, instructional or informational videos, live concerts, hobby groups and guest speakers.
Library storytime was not a successful experience for my children – it was a test of their personal limits. For most children, however, it’s a fun, social and multi-sensory activity. Most libraries offer many different programs, such as game night, open craft sessions, Lego night and summer reading contests. There’s something to fit every person’s ability.
When my older son started first grade, I began volunteering for 45 minutes to 1 hour every week at the school library…with my baby in a sling. My older son began to see the library as a family operation, and my younger son, who has always been highly sensitive and has difficulty in noisy environments, felt that this was a place where he truly belonged. Volunteering with children is an excellent way to introduce ideas about work and to model community involvement. Even toddlers can learn how to push a book cart for re-shelving and scan books for check-out.
Often the library does not have exactly what we want. So I taught my children how to request an interlibrary loan and place a hold on a preferred title. The delayed gratification is satisfying!
Anticipation is a valuable emotional skill that can be taught through practice, and the library provides plenty of anticipation for the people, books and events that we will see there. Many individuals with neurological differences and developmental disabilities have difficulty identifying patterns, predicting outcomes and understanding context. The public library is a framework for all of those very necessary life skills.