by Meghan Ashburn
My son didn’t bring home a library book from school last year. That’s right, the entire year.
An autistic kindergartener, Jay spent the majority of his school day segregated from his typically developing peers - and from his twin - in a self-contained classroom. Library time was one of the handful of opportunities he had for inclusion, but it never seemed to work out.
Jay’s twin brother Nick, who is also autistic but with different support needs, was fully included with his typically developing peers, and he went to the library every week. It was one of his favorite days! As soon as they got off the bus, he'd unpack his new book to show me what he picked.
Each time I inquired about Jay’s missing book, I’d get a message from his teacher with one of the following explanations:
Scheduling - Jay’s teacher had to coordinate with a mainstream classroom, so that was an issue.
Participation - Sometimes the teacher said he didn’t want a book, or that he didn’t want to participate during library time at all.
Refusal To Go - This was the explanation written on the final few notes I received before I stopped asking. The wording suggested that the teacher was respecting Jay’s wishes, and I absolutely didn’t want anyone to drag Jay to the library because his mother wouldn’t shut up about it.
As a parent of two children with IEP’s, library time wasn’t the hill I was prepared to die on, so I let the matter slide. But when the year came to an abrupt halt last March, the school librarian sent out an email instructing parents to keep all library books until the students returned to class.
It was at that moment I realized that Jay had gone the entire school year without bringing home a single library book, and nobody seemed to notice.
Doing the math, that’s about twenty-five less books than Nick had access to, twenty-five less opportunities to read. That’s twenty-five less occasions Jay had to get used to a different setting, twenty-five less chances he had to explore his passions.
Jay and Nick
So when Sally J. Pla invited me to write for A Novel Mind, a sense of urgency overcame me. How could I make the best use of this moment, talking with an audience that includes so many school librarians?
With this past school year fresh in mind, here’s what I want to say:
The school library is a gateway to learning beyond all those standardized lessons prescribed for students. The uniformity and monotony of the week seems to melt away when children enter your doors. As librarians, you are the gatekeepers to this opportunity. And with this power comes an enormous responsibility, especially to the children who aren’t as likely to access it.
My child is mostly non-speaking, and uses an AAC (Augmentative/Alternative Communication) device to communicate. He has sensory differences that go mostly unacknowledged, and movement differences that are often chastised. He’s in a continuous heightened state of alert due to trauma and communication differences. Add to that, a new environment, a different set of rules, and the pressure of sitting still and being quiet, and library time seems like a recipe for disaster.
Unless the librarian cares.
Like most children, Jay can tell if someone likes him. He can tell when he’s welcomed and when he’s unwanted. All he needs is an adult who truly values him just the way he is, in order to be successful.
What might that look like in practice?
Libraries are big, and they have different smells and sounds. Kids like Jay might need a special “preview” of the library so they can explore in their own ways and work out all the sensory differences - without getting in trouble.
When I first took Jay to the city library, he needed time to walk down each aisle before he could regulate himself enough to engage with me and pick out a few books. This type of exploration might be distracting to a classroom full of kids, so setting aside a little time in advance would give him a chance to feel more at ease.
Visuals are another important tool for children like Jay. Using first/then boards and visual schedules can help familiarize them with the purpose and routines of library time. Placing picture cards on each aisle might help them find their latest enthusiasm. All of these visuals help relieve anxiety and create a more accessible environment.
The library should be an inviting and safe space, especially for neurodivergent/disabled children. It’s one of the only times students can make choices about what they get to learn.
The library should be an inviting and safe space, especially for neurodivergent/disabled children. It’s one of the only times students can make choices about what they get to learn. Encourage them and trust them to make their own decision. That may mean checking out books below their reading level. It may mean checking out books above their reading level. It may also mean checking out the same book over and over again. Either way, give them this opportunity to choose for themselves. Storytime should be inclusive of all students. This means picking books with main characters from different cultures and family structures, those with differing abilities, and those who use accessibility tools such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, and feeding tubes. Search the database at A Novel Mind to find a wide selection. Then not only will children like Jay feel seen and included, but their peers get to learn about them in a positive way.
All librarians should practice using AAC throughout library time, even when none of the students in a particular class use it themselves. This models acceptance for all of the children in your school and demystifies a tool that may seem foreign. You may actually find applications for AAC that are beneficial for some of your other students. Don’t worry if you’re not good at it, because learning together is part of the fun!
Trust is everything! When children like Jay don’t trust their environment or the adults around them, it can cause them to enter a stressful state of fight-or-flight, leading to behaviors many adults label as defiant, attention-seeking, or manipulative. But as Dr. Mona Delahooke explains in her book, Beyond Behaviors, these are actually adaptive responses children develop to keep themselves safe. In short, they’re protecting themselves the only way they know how. When children know they’re valued and respected, many of their defenses melt away allowing them to interact and learn. If you notice one of your students reacting to library time in this way, remember this profound statement from Dr. Ross Greene: Kids do well if they can.
Jay doesn’t need any more adults in his life to view him as a behavior problem. He needs a librarian to welcome him, to meet him where he is, to take an interest in what interests him, and to miss him when he’s not there.
So if you notice certain students not showing up to the library, take the initiative to figure out why they were absent. If they missed school, choose a book for them and leave it in their cubby with a note, or ask their teacher if you can take them to the library yourself for a special visit. I can assure you, it will make a huge impact.
If you’d like to learn more about supporting your neurodivergent students, here are a few books I’d consider must reads for librarians:
Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Kigashida
Uniquely Human by Dr. Barry Prizant
You can find other positive books about autism and neurodiversity at 100-ish Books on Autism and Neurodiversity. All of the books on that list have been approved and recommended by the autistic community. There are several sections including a growing collection of books for kids and teens.
Meghan Ashburn is a former elementary school teacher living in Virginia Beach. She’s passionate about helping educators and families learn how to better support neurodivergent children. Her primary focuses are accessibility, communication, inclusion, and trauma informed practices. Meghan facilitates a few month-long Unprofessional Developments each year for busy educators and administrators, allowing them to learn and unlearn in a pressure-free environment as their schedules allow.
Meghan also leads That Au-Some Book Club, a Facebook group of over 4000 learners from around the world. The group discusses books either written or recommended by the autistic community, and has hosted interviews with dozens of authors. You can find Meghan through the following links: