By Nancy Everhart
Director, PALM Center
School of Information, Florida State University
Though parents of children with autism spectrum disorders would love to give their kids the opportunities afforded by public libraries, they are sometimes hesitant to take them to public places like libraries. Knowing these parents would feel more comfortable if librarians had more training and strategies to help their children be successful in that environment, my colleague Juliann Woods and I set out to provide that professional development for librarians. We are leading a team at Florida State University (FSU) in reaching out to librarians to effectively serve both children and adults through an initiative called Project PALS or Panhandle Autism Library Services.
Currently, there’s little training available to librarians on how to best serve patrons with autism. What there is usually falls under the umbrella of working with persons with general disabilities, or it takes place at a national conference that not everyone can attend.
With grants from FSU and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Project PALS is creating professional development modules for librarians, particularly those in rural areas who might not have access to training opportunities. We hope these training modules will better prepare librarians in rural areas to help library visitors on the autism spectrum.
Through this project, we have traveled throughout the Florida Panhandle conducting focus groups and interviews with adults who have an autism spectrum disorder and children’s caregivers. These groups have helped clarify the wants and needs of this community and how librarians can help their patrons.
These interviews also helped organize our project into four online professional development modules — About Autism, Arranging the Library Environment, Social Networking and Interacting with Technology, and Communicating with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
So far, we’ve shot video of both children and adults with autism at the Leon County Eastside Branch Library participating in various library activities. One of our FSU doctoral students, who is also a children’s librarian at the branch, conducted a story time for children with autism along with other children. We recorded adults using computers to find information on personal needs.
The first edited multimedia interactive self-paced module will soon be finished by the Florida Center for Interactive Media and vetted by our advisory board. The remaining three modules are being outlined as we speak and ultimately distributed to area librarians. The tested modules will also be offered nationwide in the future.
Other project PALS collaborators include the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD); the Panhandle Library Access Network (PLAN); the Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected project (Scotch Plains, NJ); Syracuse University’s Project ENABLE; an advisory board; and public, school, and academic libraries in the Florida Panhandle.