The importance of shared book reading for promoting early language and literacy skills in young children has been well established. Libraries regularly run story time sessions for young children and their parents to promote these skills in pre-schoolers, but visiting public spaces can be an overwhelming or distressing experience for some children on the autism spectrum.
As Dr Marleen Westerveld, Autism CRC Project Leader and Senior Lecturer for Griffith University’s School of Allied Health Sciences, points out: “The ability for children on the autism spectrum to attend their local library and participate in story time activities can be affected by factors such as the story time space and session structure.
“Autism is highly prevalent. Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicate that, in 2015, more than 1 in 50 school-aged children had an autism diagnosis. About 50% of children on the spectrum struggle to read, with most, if not all children on the spectrum having difficulties with understanding what they read,” Dr Westerveld said.
“That is why initiatives such as autism-friendly story time sessions in libraries are so important – they help set the foundation for early literacy skills and encourage a love of books and reading. Brisbane City Council has been instrumental in making this initiative a reality and working to ensure their sessions are accessible for all children.”
Dr Jessica Paynter, Autism CRC Researcher and Lecturer for Griffith University’s School of Applied Psychology, explains the approach taken.
“As part of our initiative, we surveyed parents with young children on the autism spectrum to identify the barriers that impact their child’s participation in story time sessions,” Dr Paynter said.
“We are now working with the First 5 Forever Team at Brisbane City Council libraries to increase their knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of autism and how these characteristics may impact on children’s participation in story time sessions. We are also developing strategies the First 5 Forever Team can implement to create more autism-friendly sessions.
More autism friendly
“Our strategies include the use of a library sensory checklist to determine how the story time space can be made more autism friendly. The checklist includes how to structure the story time session and make use of visual planners,” Dr Kate Simpson, Autism CRC Researcher and Lecturer for Griffith University’s School of Education and Professional Studies, said.
Brisbane City Council’s First 5 Forever team is looking forward to seeing the initiative make story time sessions more suitable for children on the autism spectrum.
Supported by the project team, the first professional development training day for librarians was held on 19 April, with 22 staff attending from 20 different libraries.
A pilot study will be run this year at one library in which librarians will implement autism friendly story time sessions with coaching from the project team.
“The ‘story time’ initiative is one of 55 projects being delivered by Autism CRC in collaboration with its Participants and Partners to help improve the lives of people on the spectrum,” said Andrew Davis, CEO of Autism CRC.
“Autism CRC’s vision is to see autistic people empowered to discover and use their diverse strengths and interests. Shared-book reading plays a vital role in children’s emergent literacy development and contributes to reading success down the track – the importance of which should not be overlooked,” Mr Davis said.
“To stay updated on the development of autism-friendly story time sessions in Brisbane, follow Autism CRC on social media or visit our website,” he said.
A video about the initiative is also available on the Autism CRC YouTube channel.