Ada van Tine is a Graduate Research Intern in the Program on Information Science, researching the area of library privacy.
Our Libraries and Neurodiversity
By Ada van Tine
Andover-Harvard Theological Library Stacks by Ada van Tine
It is a quiet day the library where you work, you find it peaceful. But that is not the case for everyone. One of your patrons, Anna, is an 18 year old woman who falls on the autism spectrum. She needs to do research for her college final paper on W.E.B. Du Bois. She lives with her parents nearby the school and library, but their house is noisy and full of visiting relatives right now. However Anna doesn’t consider the library to be a calm alternative and is very nervous about going to the library because the fluorescent lights highly irritate her, their buzzing endlessly permeating her brain, causing nausea. To cope with this she often does repetitive movements with her hands. In the past, librarians and other patrons have been really awkward with her because of her hand movements and reaction to the lights. But she really needs to get these books for her paper, what will you do as a librarian to help this patron meet her needs? For individuals who are members of a neurominority, libraries can be extremely stressful, upsetting, and in the worst cases traumatic.
In libraries, we understand that we need to accommodate people who are different, but the problem is that sometimes we are not aware of who we might be failing to serve and why. If Anna gives feedback about the library in a suggestion box, the you might well schedule a replacement of the fluorescent lights as part of the library’s renovations. That is a small step toward progress, however we should not wait around for an invitation to make our libraries more bearable, leaving the chance that some patrons might be suffering in silence in the meantime. Librarians need to be radically proactive so as not to make their spaces only welcoming to the part of the population with neurotypical leanings. The solution, however, is not merely a focus on those who are “different” and need some kind of special accommodation.
Rather, the researchers and advocates who talk about neurodiversity now stress that neurodiversity is “the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome.” (Robinson, What is Neurodiversity?) Simply said: all humans fall on neurological spectra of traits, and all of us have our own variances from the norm. For each person in the world there exists a different way of perceiving and interacting with other people and information. For instance, people with dyslexia, people with autism, people with ADHD, and people who have not had a good night’s sleep all perceive the world and the library differently. The concept of Neurodiversity is another way to recognize that.
Furthermore, new research is continually helping us to evolve our ideas about neurodiversity. Therefore, libraries should stay abreast of advancements in technology for the neurodiverse population because they will benefit every patron. “Actively engaging with neurodiversity is not a question of favoring particular personal or political beliefs; rather, such engagement is an extension of librarians’ professional duties insofar as it enables the provision of equitable information services” (Lawrence, Loud Hands in the Library, 106-107). Librarians are called through the ALA Core Values of Access and Diversity to make all information equitably available to all patrons. To not recognize the existence of neurodiversity would be to ignore a segment of the whole society which we are called to serve.
There are immediate ways that your library can better serve a larger portion of the neurodiverse population. For example, below are some relatively low cost interventions:
- For dyslexic individuals have a small reading screen available. esearch has shown that those with dyslexia can read more easily and quickly off of smaller screens with small amounts of text per page (Schneps).
- Audiobooks, text-to-speech, and devices that can show text in a color gradient also help dyslexic patrons with their information needs.
- For people who are on the autism spectrum replace the older fluorescent lights in the library, and don’t focus solely on open collaborative spaces in the library layout (Lawrence, Loud Hands, 105). Also train yourself and your employees to recognize and know how to react properly with autistic individuals who may express non verbal body language such as repetitive movements (Lawrence, Loud Hands, 105).
- For people with ADHD, have quiet private rooms available so they can better concentrate at the library as well as audio books and text-to-speech programs so that they can listen to their research and reading while doing other things (Hills, Campbell, 462).
- Train staff to never touch a person who is on the autism spectrum without their explicit permission, be aware of their sensory needs and hold the interview in a quiet place with no background noise such as an office fountain, and with no fluorescent lights. Some people on the autism spectrum are also smell sensitive, so notify staff to refrain from wearing perfume. (http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AAM-Sensory-Accomodations.pdf)
New technologies and findings in cognitive science are being developed to better adapt to those individuals who are members of a neurominority. For example, a new reading program is being developed by Dr. Matthew Schneps that combines a reading acceleration program with compressed text-to-speech and visual modifications which has so far proven to drastically increase the speed of dyslexic and non dyslexic readers alike (Shneps). There are many studies on the ways in which modern technology can be used to better communicate with and educate autistic students. The future is hopeful.
Addressing neurodiversity in our libraries and in our societies is not a solved problem. For example there is research and development being done to reframe digital programs to be viewed as an ever growing ecosystem, never in stasis, so that they may better adapt to every user’s need as well as be transparent about the metadata of programs so that users can know which parts of the system are enabling or disabling their assistive technology (Johnson, 4). There are many steps to take that can help make the library more friendly to a neuro diverse audience, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that we must all plan to change and adapt now and over time to make our society a better, more liveable place for everyone. So that maybe when Anna comes to research the library and staff will be prepared to be a little more welcoming than she expected, and maybe she’ll even want to come back.
What to do next:
You may feel overwhelmed by the vast and complicated nature of this important task. The first step is always to educate yourself and get a grounding in basic literature about a subject. Many resources are included in the next section to aid in this discovery process.
You may wish to start off by learning about neurodiversity in general (What is Neurodiversity?,Definition of Neurodiversity). If you’ve identified a specific population need in your community — you may want to dig in deeper with resources specific to that neurominority, here are a few. (Autism Spectrum, ADHD, Dyslexia).
There are some good books and articles specifically about neurodiversity and libraries included in the resources. (Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder,
Loud Hands in the Library, Neurodiversity in the Library).
As it turns out, there is a lack of literature relating to best practices and programming in libraries in reference to neurodiversity. However, to understand and engage with this topic and community librarians should consider attending events and workshops — a number held by advocacy and research organizations are included below. (ADHD, Dyslexia, The A11Y project, International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, The Center for AAC and Autism).
- What is Neurodiversity?
- Autism Spectrum
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
- Neurodiversity in Libraries
- Literature on Library services for neurodiverse populations
- Working in a library as a member of a neurominority
- Organizations and events to learn more about inclusive technology and neurodiversity
The American Association of People with Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.aapd.com/about/
Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Retrieved from http://autisticadvocacy.org/
The A11Y project. Retrieved from https://a11yproject.com/about
Campbell, I., Hills, K. (2011). College Programs and Services. In M. DeVries, S. Goldstein, & J. Naglieri (Eds), Learning and Attention Disorders in Adolesence and Adulthood (457-466). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
The Center for AAC and Autism. Retrieved from https://www.aacandautism.com/
Children and Adults with Hyperactive Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.chadd.org/
Eng, A. (2017). Neurodiversity in the Library: One Librarian’s Experience. In The Library With The Lead Pipe, 1.
Farmer, L. S. J. (2013). Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chicago: American Library Association.
How Educators Can Help Autistic People by Sensory Accommodations. Retrieved from http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AAM-Sensory-Accomodations.pdf
International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org
International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Retrieved from https://www.isaac-online.org/english/about-isaac/
Johnson, Rick. (2017, Sept 25). Accessibility: Ensuring that Edtech Systems Work Together to Serve All Students. Educause Review. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/9/accessibility-ensuring-that-edtech-systems-work-together-to-serve-all-students
Klipper, B. (2014). Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chicago: American Library Association.
Lawrence, E. (2013). Loud Hands in the Library. Progressive Librarian, (41), 98-109. http://ezproxy.simmons.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lls&AN=91942766&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Neurodiversity. Retrieved from http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/resources/101-3/autism-acceptance/neurodiversity/
Ploog, B. O., Scharf, A., Nelson, D., & Brooks, P. J. (2013). Use of computer-assisted technologies (CAT) to enhance social, communicative, and language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal Of Autism And Developmental Disorders, (2), 301. doi:10.1007/sl0803-012-1571-3
Robison, John Elder. (2013, Oct 7). What is Neurodiversity? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity
Schneps, Matthew H. (2015). Using Technology to Break the Speed Barrier of Reading. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/using-technology-to-break-the-speed-barrier-of-reading/