As I chatted with a children's librarian to get book recommendations for my upcoming sensory story time a nearby woman listened intently. She began making suggestions herself, and as she talked she shared that she really didn't see why the library would put such a story time in place that would actively separate children with autism from typically developing children.
For a moment I was stunned. That wasn't the purpose of the story times at all. Our hope is that the story times will have the opposite effect- parents will feel comfortable enough at the sensory story times that they will see the library as a place they can bring their child- and that they will eventually bring their child to the traditional story times as well. Yet as she talked I could understand her point of view.
In her eyes we were saying that we didn't think these children could handle going to a traditional story time. By creating a story time to cater to specific needs, she seemed to feel that they were sending the message that children with autism and developmental disabilities were not welcome at other events. "Why can't parents just bring their child to any story time?" she asked.
The conversation was eye opening because until that moment I hadn't realized that hosting a specific sensory story time could be interpreted this way.
The story times are becoming increasingly popular and the feedback we've gotten from parents is that they appreciate a welcoming place to bring their child, and that it's a relief to come to the library and feel comfortable that they aren't being judged. After the story time you can see most of the participants and their families selecting books from the stacks. Our mission seems to be working- we are giving parents a place to bring their children and encouraging a love for books.
Listening to the woman's perspective was a good reminder that we shouldn't just stop at offering the separate story times- there is more we can do to make all story times, or really any event that welcomes kids to be good for all kids- not just the typically developing. Hopefully the parents will also notice the busy bulletin board with flyers from all the different story times offered and will begin to think about bringing their child to those as well. We can even encourage them to look at the bulletin board and remind them that their child is welcome at any of the sessions.
If you are in the Northern Virginia area the next sensory storytime will be at the Kings Park library on Dec 5th at 10:30 in their meeting room space.
That mother is correct: parents should feel free to bring their children with disabilities to any story time. We (rightly) no longer think it's OK to exclude children with non-typical behaviors. But, there are 2 reasons to still have special story times: first, it can be helpful to have practice in attending a story time -- for the purpose of getting used to the conventions of a story time (listening without making loud noises is the main one but I'm sure there are others that some children would benefit from practicing). Second, regular story times easily accommodate some disabilities, but not disabilities that cause frequent loud outbursts or frequently moving into others' space.
I sympathize with the mother who wondered if her child would be excluded from regular story time. But there is a reason to continue "Sensory Storytime." First, it can be a stepping stone to regular storytime for children who don't easily absorb the behavioral expectations for regular storytime (or who need a storytime where their differences are accepted and not questioned). But in addition, there are many instances where "regular" activities have been cancelled because children (or their parents) who don't have disabilities get discouraged with the behavior of other children -- and not just other children with disabiliaties!
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