Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Asperger's Syndrome: A View From Within Libraries

9:00am-10:30am Wednesday May 6, 2009.

Jean Stern from the Asperger's Association of New England  (AANE) delivered a fascinating workshop with practical advice for librarians on dealing with patrons who have Asperger Syndrome, or as they refer to themselves, Aspies.   AANE is a non-profit organization created to promote awareness of Aspergers and provide support for people with Asperger's and their families. Jean's background is in early childhood education.   She is an educational consultant in Connectucut and Massachusetts.  AANE supports young and adult people with Asperger's. 

Jean's program began with some definitions of Asperger's Syndrome (AS). She preferred to use the definition of Steven Shore , a noted author with AS.  Steven is author of the books Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and Understanding Autism for Dummies. His definition of AS describes the world of the "neurotypicals" (people without AS) and their "circular" experience of the world, where everyday things run smoothly along the edge of a circle. People with Asperger's, on the other hand, experience the world as a polygon, with bumps around the circle.

Asperger's is a neuro-developmental disorder that affects several areas of development where skills mask difficulties.  They should be seen through a neurological rather than a psychological lens.  People with AS have heightened or reduced senses.  Jean compared this to a neurotypical who is sprayed by a skunk.  We might react by running away or screaming.  This can be how people with AS react to everyday encounters such as loud music, smelly perfume, or bad breath.  People with AS have major problems with space. They do not understand differences in touch (playful, aggressive, congratulatory, etc).  They do not know or understand other people's point of view.  Their own view is the only way they see the world.  

Some of the tell tale signs of Asperger's are:

  • May not make eye contact.
  • May stay alone.
  • May not know to stop talking. Good intent. Not necessarily socially aware.
  • May make comments out of context.  
  • May follow routines and always sit in the same place
  • Minds have massive problems organizing.  The world is chaos to them.  They will cling to sameness.  

Librarians should make people with Aspergers feel more comfortable.  They do not learn by exposure to others as most of us do, they need direct instruction.  The goal of this session was to "get inside the head" of someone with Asperger's.  Jean gave some concrete ideas for how librarians can interact with people with AS.  

  • People with AS don't know "hidden library behavior". Be explicit with instruction. They will need support from you.
  • They know what's in their head, not what's in your head.
  • Do not assume disrespect or negative intent. Give them the facts.
  • Use rules, not discussion of feelings if there is a behavior to change.
  • Help them problem-solve.
  • Provide visual schedules, maps of library, lists of supplies, samples, list expectations, upcoming events, etc.
  • Clarify essential vs non-essential info.
  • Use specific and simple language. People with AS will take everything you say literally. Use language like "put the card under the scanner" rather than "scan to check out".
  • Only give oral directions one at a time or write them down for more than one direction.
  • Script and practice alternatives for ineffective choices

Libraries can be a haven for people with AS.  They are quiet, have an orderly system, encourage reading, allow routines and systems, have lots of personal space and natural light.  Libraries are a place where people with AS can obtain facts about their interests.  Librarians should learn about and encourage the interests of their AS patrons.  These interests can turn into careers.

A question from the audience that is likely to be commonplace was about dealing with disruptive AS patrons. This person has dealt with the parent of an AS child at her library only to get a defensive reaction from the parent.  Jean said to ask the question "how do we get to yes"?  Negotiate with the adult in a positive way.  Additionally make a plan before disruptions occur.  Create an environment to prevent outbursts using some of the strategies discussed above.

Some ASD facts... 

  • Community for Disease Control data confirms that 1 in 50 8 yr olds surveyed in 2000 and 2002 have ASD.
  • Many people with AS are unemployable due to their lack of traditional social skills.
  • People with AS love reading. They would rather read that interact. Reading is a safe haven.
  • Fluorescent lights are bothersome to people with AS. They notice the flicker that we don't. They prefer natural light.
  • Actor Dan Aykroyd has been diagnosed with Asperger's

For more info contact Jean Stern, M.Ed. Director of Children's Services at Asperger's Association of New England 85 Main St. Suite 101, Watertown MA 02472 617.393.3824

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