Autism speaks… and we should listen – A TTW Guest Post by Pamela Hawks

Note from Michael – Pamela is a WISE student from Rutgers taking my Hyperlinked Library course. This is a companion post to Holly’s previously published post on serving the hearing impaired.

(**names have been changed for anonymity’s sake**)


My education began with an eye-roll.

The library worker standing next to me behind the circulation desk added a heavy sigh and a series of tut-tuts to the eye-roll.  The troubling cause of this facial display?  The child having a mild fit 15 feet away from us in the children’s section of the library.  ”Do you know Stephen?” she asked me, as if to sum-up the whole annoyance we librarians suffer with this one question.  “Yes, I know Stephen,” I thought to myself.  He’s autistic.

And that’s when it happened.  I live in a small town, and so I knew Stephen because I knew his parents.  But, I also suddenly began to notice the behavior of some of our other patrons that previously I would have written off as “difficult” or “problems” and my viewpoints changed.  I vowed I would not become like the eye-roller of my story.  But how?  I knew little to next to nothing about this extremely misunderstood segment of our population.  And then another piece of serendipity fell into my lap.  I attended a talk about under-served populations in libraries and two of the keynote speakers were Dan Weiss and Meg Kolaya.

Dan and Meg are two New Jersey librarians who answered the call for libraries to respond to this growing population by developing a program called Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected.  It is an extraordinary program designed for educating librarians about patrons with autism and other developmental challenges, and how best to serve them.

But it is simply too easy to just say that we should be inclusive of everyone.  What Meg and Dan do is provide real live situations one might encounter with a patron with autism and show methods of handling behavior through interactive video presentations.  The underlying message in these videos is that “all behavior is a form of communication.”  I think that is a wonderful statement that gives librarians a stepping off point for connecting with people who have autism.  The program also gives many useful suggestions on how to develop programs for different age groups on the autism spectrum, as well as discussing how libraries can make their physical environments help patrons with autism feel safer and more comfortable.

One of their key points that really opened my eyes was that children with autism grow up into adults with autism.  The behavior of these adults can often be easily misconstrued since they operate in public life sans a caregiver, and adult tantrums or disruptions are not as tolerated as they are in children.  But, it is a fact that these adults are part of every community and that their numbers are rising significantly.

Public libraries should be at the forefront of developing strategies for making our institutions welcoming environments for them, as well as developing programs and resources to help families cope with this often overwhelming disability.  I believe that every library that develops a strategic plan should make an effort to include a goal of widening the inclusivity of their institutions in regards to members of the community who fall into the category of the developmentally challenged.

This short training video gives you an idea of how simple, but important learning these skills are for anyone working with the public:

As I thought about reaching our users this week, I kept returning to the problems I see with customer service models.  Check out a wonderful program from Minnesota called the Wakanheza Project ( that teaches people how to react to others in stressful situations by treating everyone as if they were a sacred being.  It actually provides a list of methods for helping people who deal with the public create welcoming, healthy environments – a perfect place to orient library staff in customer service training.



Pamela Hawks, who has nearly completed her MLIS from Rutgers University, School of Communication and Information, hopes to play a role in the changing landscape of transformative and innovative library service.  She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York State with her family.