On the morning of April 16, the Forest Park Public Library held a sensory-friendly library tour to give Forest Parkers with autism and other sensory issues a chance to experience the library in a calmer, less crowded environment.

This is one of several events held throughout April, which has been designated Autism Acceptance Month. Library staff put together an Autism Acceptance Month reading list of fiction and nonfiction books and is holding a sensory-friendly screening of the DC Super Pets animated movie for kids on the autism spectrum.

But this isn’t just something the library does in April. Year-round programming addresses patrons with sensory issues, offering accommodations that allow them to enjoy as much of what the library has to offer as possible. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the Autism Spectrum Disorder as a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Some of the common symptoms include repetitive behaviors, difficulty in picking up on social cues, and sensitivity to some forms of sensory input, such as certain sounds or smells. It is described as a spectrum because the way the symptoms present themselves, and the extent to which those symptoms create challenges, varies a great deal depending on the person. 

Since the 1970s, autism support organizations and some government entities have marked April as Autism Awareness Month. The past decade saw many organizations, including Forest Park Library, call it “Autism Acceptance Month” instead. 

According to the library’s newsletter announcing April activities, one word makes an important difference. 

“The goal of Autism Acceptance Month is to be more inclusive of the very community it seeks to celebrate,” it stated. “The month is not just education about the differences of people with autism, but understanding and respecting those differences.”

Susan Farnum, the library’s youth services manager, said they’ve been offering special Autism-related programming in April since at least 2018. 

 The Sensory-Friendly Library Tour took place at 11 a.m., two hours before the library opens on Sundays. Adult Services Manager Skye Lavin said they wanted give interested Forest Parkers a chance to experience the library without the stress and noise of being in larger crowds. They pointed out the more active and quieter parts of the library, such as study rooms. Patrons can check out electronics such as audio recorders and WiFi hotspots, and Lavin said the tour pointed out that patrons can check out light therapy lamps and handheld magnifiers. 

The tour also spotlighted the library’s collection, many of which are featured on the Autism Acceptance Month reading list.

“We’ve been intentional in building collections of resources with something for everyone, and we have several books on disability justice,” Lavin said. “A few on display in the library right now are, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation by Eric Garcia, Disability Pride: Dispatches from a Post-ADA World by Ben Mattlin, and Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World that Wasn’t Designed for You by Jenara Nerenberg.”

Farnum said the library offers “targeted” programming year-round toward patrons on the spectrum. This includes “sensory-supported storytimes, magic, and music programs” and a regular sensory-friendly films series. They also want to make sure that individuals with autism, especially kids, can enjoy all programs, because “we don’t want anyone to feel in any way limited to just [targeted] offerings.” 

“We also have a variety of offerings on request to address some common sensory needs, such as noise-muffling earphones, earplugs, a weighted blanket, fidgets, and calming tubes,” she said. “These are available for use in the Youth Services Department on demand.”

The library’s long-term plan is to set aside a Quiet Room during all large-scale programs “for people to go to for a break if they feel overstimulated or anxious.”

Farnum said the library staff regularly attends Targeting Autism forums to stay on top of best practices for serving patrons with autism. 

“We know that accessibility is a year-round priority,” she said.