Different, Not Less: The World of Autism and Adapted Library Practices

Did you know…
One in every sixty-eight children in the United States is diagnosed with autism? That makes over two million people in our nation who are living with autism.
So what are you doing to give them a meaningful time in your library?

Walk into my library and it may seem like any other. Books on the shelves, kids excited over the newest series, self-checkout running, and the hum of my news crew working on their latest script. Come in at a different time in the day and library looks very different for my classes of contained autism students.

A Refuge

For many, autism wasn't something that registered in their lives when they were a child. I remember my cousin Natalie had difficulty with sound, but didn't fully understand why she lived in fear of the Fourth of July until I was an adult. In my classroom experience, I met Kyle, my high functioning fifth grader on the spectrum, and quickly realized that I needed help. I needed to figure out how to make my classroom engaging to him. My normal techniques wouldn't be enough. I had to adapt.

When I took my current position at my elementary school library, I met many more students with needs far greater than Kyle's. Many non-verbal students who would be mine to teach for twenty to thirty minutes a week. The same year, my own son was diagnosed on the spectrum at twenty-two months old. At home, I was my son's refuge from the loud, overwhelming world outside our door. It became my goal to be the same thing for my students on the spectrum at school. A place where they didn't have to worry about social cues or overwhelming their senses. A place where they didn't enter my world, but I began to enter theirs.

One of the most amazing parts of the job of the school librarian is the fact that we are a place where every child is serviced in a school regardless of age, grade, or needs. We see them all and we see it all. For many children on the spectrum, they hear and see it all too in ways that we cannot even imagine. The goal of our special education teachers and ABA teachers is to get these children to work towards independence and to be able to participate socially with their peers. The goal of an adapted story time or library time should be the same. Spending time with your special education teachers is vital to making an adapted library work. What goals are your students trying to achieve on their IEPs and how can you as the school librarian get them there?

Take a look at some of the goals that many students have and think about how you could help with them.

  • Fine motor skills
  • Sequencing
  • Attending
  • Social skills
  • Verbalization
  • "Wh" questions
  • Following instructions

All of these goals can be worked on and achieved in a library setting, not just in the special education or speech classroom. The techniques shared below are ones that I continue to hone and work on in my own library. They are also the advice that I wish I'd had starting out on my journey.

What to Read?

When choosing a book or a set of books for your adapted story times it can be easy to get lost in the stacks upon stacks of wonderful literature that is at our fingertips. There are some tried-and-true factors that I use when choosing my own books for reading to keep our time together engaging.

  1. Repetition and patterns
  2. Clear illustrations
  3. Songs
  4. Language and length
  5. Likes and dislikes

Not every book that you choose for your reading time needs to have all of these factors, but using at least one of these will give you a more engaging time.

One of the things that I have learned as an educator and an autism mom is that repetition is key for those on the spectrum. There is safety in the known. Using books that may follow a similar pattern can have a calming effect on a student who has not read a book before. Brown Bear, Brown Bear will follow the same flow on every page. The series of There Was an Old Lady Who follows the same pattern with each different retelling. The Very Hungry Caterpillar grows in its pattern, but follows the same overall pattern throughout the book.

Clear illustrations help children who may already have sensory issues with sight. Pete the Cat and his bright blue fur is a wonderfully high contrast for students. Take a look through your own collections and see which artwork is not over the top for illustrations.

My own library is not a place that tends to be very quiet. You can usually find me singing while I work or reading books that are full of music and rhythm. Finding books that have songs in them are wonderful for students on the spectrum because they can sing with you or even just tap along with the beat. Pete the Cat Rocking in My School Shoes kicks off my year every year because we can sing it all together. For my nonverbal students, they clap or tap along with their feet. Music therapy can have a calming effect on everyone, so why not involve it in our own practices?

The language and length of your book is something that we are always looking at when choosing appropriate books. You may want to hold onto deeper books like Each Kindness or Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote for your general education students. Books like Bear Snores On or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie are at a better reading level and will better engage your students.

When it comes to picking your books, get to know your classes. Find out their unique likes and dislikes and tailor your reading and purchases to keep them focused.

Sensory Storytime

One of the things that breaks my heart the most is story times in the library where the goal is just to muscle through a book and get through behaviors. There are many who are simply trying to make it through their day and are unsure of how to connect with their students on the spectrum. Take your library time from forced to fun by thinking of sensory tactics.

I have over 130 books in my library that have been adapted for lessons to have students move during our lessons. Ranging from classics to favorite characters, I try to adapt it all. In the four years that I have been working with autistic students, there are three strategies I found that work wonders in the library to create a safe and positive space for my students on the spectrum: book boards, fingerplays, and musical instruments.

Book boards are simple boards than anyone can make. They can either be set up like bingo boards or velcro boards. Bingo boards have between six to nine graphics on them that appear in the book. As we go through our story, students can locate the item on their boards. This is a time that you can work on "wh" questions, verbalization of topics, or even just the fine motor skill of learning how to point with one finger. Velcro boards can be used when there are more character based stories. You could find graphics online or take photographs to pull characters directly out of their books. Having the items on the table gives students a chance to locate the correct piece from a group of choices. Both of these options can keep students engaged in a story as they wait for the next piece. For younger students, try changing things up with a felt board. Book pieces can easily be printed, laminated, and hot glued. Then each student has a turn to follow instructions in the story and play their piece on the board. The felt pieces give students a sensory piece to enjoy while listening.

Fingerplays are a great way to work on the gross and fine motor skills of students on the spectrum. Working through simple songs like "Open Shut Them" or for younger ones "The Wheels on the Bus" can keep the familiarity of favorite tunes while connecting to your library time. A fan favorite in my own library is "Baby Shark," which gives students a chance to even get up and move about. This can be a great time for children to stim if they need to as well. Fingerplays can have another sensory element added to them through the use of musical instruments. These don't need to be fancy or expensive. My own collection includes nothing more than shaker eggs, jingle bells, and even scarves for those who need a quieter instrument. Since many on the spectrum hear things differently than those who are neurotypical, having a variety of different instruments is key. Shaker eggs and jingle bells can be used in chants, while scarves can be used in many different fingerplays as props. The options are endless, you'll just have to figure out what works best for your own students.

Adapted Collection

After a story time in your library, you'll have to consider the age-old question. To check out or to not check out. It is my sincerest of hopes that you allow every child to take a book. There is a chance that books will come back to you torn, but it is a risk worth taking to give every child a reading experience in and out of your library.

My students are allowed to take books from anywhere in the library. However, one of the newest features that we have added is an adapted selection. If you've never seen an adapted book before, it's because they come from one amazing source: your own hard work. Locating books on the correct reading level, pulling them apart, creating adapted words with reading supports, laminating, and putting it all back together is no easy feat. But, a book that is structured to give a student on the spectrum their own reading independence is one of the greatest gifts that you can give them.

Many autism programs use Boardmaker (https://www.boardmakeronline.com) to create visual supports in their classrooms. Using the same program, you can create your own adapted books for checkout. I find that early readers make for the easiest of adaptations that also correspond with the reading levels of our students. They can also give our students a chance to work with nonfiction topics that they wouldn't be able to read in some of our collections.

If an adapted collection is something that interests you, contact your special education teachers to talk about what visual support program they use with their own students.

Building a Community of Empathy

I have found one of the most important pieces of an adapted library program is what you are doing with the rest of your school. For many students, they haven't even heard of autism unless it is a part of their family. So what are you doing to open their world and build empathy?

Consider using the first week of April to spread autism awareness and acceptance. April 2nd is World Autism Day (https://www.autismspeaks.org/world-autism-awareness-day) and there are so many opportunities to share a lesson on autism.

  • Read a picture book about autism like My Brother Charlie, All My Stripes, and Red to introduce the topic of autism.
  • Discuss famous people with autism like Temple Grandin, Satoshi Tajiri, and Isaac Newton.
  • Talk with your special education teachers to create simulations of what it may be like to be on the spectrum.

Open the world of your students to see that those who have autism are different, not less.


When it comes to our students on the autism spectrum, there is a favorite quote of mine: "When you meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." Each case of autism is different just like each person is unique. As librarians, we seek to know each of our students deeply. To find just the right book to speak into their lives. To make our spaces sanctuaries for knowledge and acceptance. For me, my "why" when it comes to my efforts related to autism is knowing that I am planting the seeds in children that I may not see sprout for many years. But, I am giving them an experience to help guide and shape the therapies that will help them for years to come.

As you look at your own adapted practices, I ask you to find your own why. Let the words of Noaki Higashida from The Reason I Jump point you in your own direction.

Us kids with autism would like you to watch out for us—meaning 'Please never give up on us.'…Just going by how we respond, it's difficult for you to tell if we've understood what you're saying or not.…That's just the way we are. On our own we simply don't know how to get things done the same way you do them. But, like everyone else, we want to do the best we possibly can. When we sense you've given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end. (2013).

Work Cited
Higashida, Naoki. The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell, transl. Random House, 2013.

About the Author

Heather Baucum is a school librarian in Fairfax County Public Schools. She is an avid advocate for students with autism in her county and in her own home as well with her autistic son. She has a passion for helping each student find their place in the library and in the world. She presented at the 2016 AASL conference, sharing strategies on working with autistic children in the library. She can be found on Twitter doing professional development or sharing ideas @BookyBaucum. In her free time, she enjoys quilting and crafting, and spending time with her husband and three young children.

MLA Citation Baucum, Heather. "Different, Not Less: The World of Autism and Adapted Library Practices ." School Library Connection, February 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2148480.

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