Libraries are welcoming spaces, embracing all patrons with support and empowerment. Library makerspaces must be open and accepting of all our students' needs. From English Language Learners to students with physical and learning disabilities, all children can benefit from makerspace activities as making encourages communication skills, time management, critical thinking, and problem solving among numerous other essential skills. Imagination and inquiry develop and thrive in these creative learning spaces. Welcoming makerspaces are a benefit to all, especially the differently abled student. Students with autism can thrive in our makerspaces through staff awareness and a few modifications to your program.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects one in fifty-nine children; occurs across all ethnic, racial and socioeconomic groups; and is diagnosed more frequently in boys than girls ("Data & Statistics" 2019). Developmental and neurological symptoms, including difficulty communicating and interacting with others, can impact the child's ability to function at school and in social situations. The severity of the disorder falls on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, programs that help students "learn life-skills necessary to live independently, increase or build upon strengths" and "learn social, communication, and language skills" are highly beneficial for people with ASD (2019). These skills easily correspond with skill sets learned through maker activities. When students feel successful, there is an impact on their self-confidence and self-esteem; a significant benefit for special needs students. Communication and social skills are important attributes for any child, but the benefits to students with special needs increase substantially. So how do we welcome the ASD child to our makerspaces?
With planning, children with autism can benefit and succeed in makerspace programming. Taking a look at typical ASD characteristics, librarians should mold programs to promote success. "Leveraging strengths and managing the challenges are two keys to running a successful makerspace" (Water 2015). Students with autism have certain known attributes that affect interactions, including limited eye contact and failure to respond when spoken to. Social communication can be limited, if nonexistent, depending on the severity of the disorder experienced by the student. However, ASD youth will converse at length about subjects of interest to them. Flexibility and patience are most effective when dealing with the above behaviors.
Limit the number of choices for the ASD child as too many options tend to overwhelm the child. A few choices (two or three) will allow the child to be in control and more productive. Bombarding children with excessive options overwhelms and overstimulates. Autistic children can be more sensitive to their environment—too hot, too crowded, too much light, just "too much." Allow breaks and movement during your session, particularly when you notice an overstimulated child. If possible and safe, lower lighting levels or adjust the window shades.
Remember to be consistent and set boundaries and expectations. Don't change plans midway or introduce a new concept. ASD students prefer stability.
Usually the student's classroom special education teacher will be able to give you pointers on what works for that student. Use this staff member's insight to develop a deeper relationship with the student; this will be helpful for the long run. Work with special education staff to learn all you can about your students' needs and their individual strengths and limitations and build programming from there. Students with disabilities have an individual education plan (IEP) that should be read and referred to by the school librarian. The IEP is a legal and educational document that outlines the needs of the student and how they will be addressed. In our school we use our makerspace as part of students' IEPs in addressing goals.
- "In the high school library's maker center, ____ has demonstrated that he likes to build things."
- "____ demonstrated that he likes -and-effect relationships, problem solving, and basic programming skills while using the high school library's maker center to construct models or program a mouse to navigate mazes."
- "____ maintains his attention for longer periods of time when completing hands-on activities. According to his Transitional Assessment, these skills will help him in achieving his goal to work with computers."
Our autistic students have many highly valuable strengths. Notably, the ability "to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time, being strong visual and auditory learners [and] excelling in math, science, music, or art" (National Institute of Mental Health 2018). Just think of all the possibilities!
Most functioning autistic students can participate in any maker activity if you keep in mind your students' limitations. Do not expect eye contact or a response to your instruction and be sure to limit the number of choices and items on the workspace. The beauty of choice other students experience in our makerspaces can be a burden for the ASD students.
Students with ASD typically have repetitive tendencies and limited interests. With this in mind, school librarians can provide activities that suit the student's needs and personal interest. I have found success with K'nex and Legos, as both building tools involve a repetitive activity for those who enjoy and find success in large creations over a course of time. Many of our children on the spectrum can apply themselves to a task requiring a significant length of time. The world's largest Lego model, a 26-foot model of the Titanic, took over 700 hours to build and 65,000 Lego bricks to complete. At just ten years old, Brynjar Karl Birgisson, an autistic boy from Iceland, spent eleven months developing the plans from historic blueprints and building a model that is now on display in the Titanic Museum. Brynjar spent many months travelling to various countries with his completed model. The once shy boy went from limited interactions and communication to what he describes as a complete turnaround. "The whole journey has helped me out of my autistic fog.…I was totally unable to communicate when I started the project. Now I'm standing on stage and giving interviews" ("Autistic Teen's" 2018). Confidence and self-esteem of this sort are noted core advantages of makerspace use.
During April, bring autism and ASD to the forefront by celebrating Autism Awareness Month. Bring others into your makerspace and promote awareness of this prevalent disorder. Several hands-on projects can be found at "5 Autism-Friendly Maker Activities + Programming Tips" ( http://ideas.demco.com/blog/5-autism-friendly-maker-activities/). Using the nationally recognized symbol of autism awareness, the puzzle piece, messages of encouragement, information, and of hope can be shared among library patrons and the community through decorative puzzle pieces, visually reinforcing the need to work together. Awareness helps other staff members and the student body, as well. Working together through awareness emboldens change, an advantageous change that aids understanding and promotes familiarity.
While this article does not anticipate that the situations and solutions listed above will apply to every child on the spectrum or to all school library makerspaces, it should be considered a starting point: a conversation and an invitation to collaborate with special needs teaching staff. With some modifications and differentiated instruction, students with autism spectrum disorder can experience multiple benefits in our school library makerspaces.
"Autistic Teen's Lego Titanic Replica on Display in US." BBC News (April 18, 2018). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43813267
"Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html. Accessed January 11, 2019.
National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml. Accessed January 4, 2019.
Waters, Patrick. "Encouraging Neurodiversity in Your Makerspace or Classroom." Edutopia (December 24, 2015). https://www.edutopia.org/blog/encouraging-neurodiversity-in-makerspace-classroom-patrick-waters