Interactions and Collaboration

Neurodiverse Perspectives on the Library

  • Many autistic students have already had negative experiences in libraries before, either with staff who were strict, who shushed them or even expelled them, or who misinterpreted stimming (Braumberger, 2021). Stimming refers to a self-stimulating repetitive behavior, often a movement or vocalization, that can help regulate emotion.
  • Often negative interactions revolve around employees’ lack of empathy or compassion around needs that are not outwardly apparent (Pionke, 2017).
  • Common features of libraries can engender anxiety in some neurodivergent users. Students have expressed feeling claustrophobic due to tall bookshelves and confusing signs, not wanting to ask for help because it constitutes a “failure,” feeling intimidated and unwelcome around large numbers of neurotypical students, or pressure not to irritate other students by taking too long to figure out library systems (Fitzgerald et al, 2020).
  • Patrons with PTSD may feel intimidated by the presence of uniformed security officers, or maze-like stacks of books (Pionke, 2017).
  • Patrons with communication disorders may feel they are burdening library employees by asking for help. They may have greater difficulty communicating when tired or stressed (Pionke, 2017).

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Disclosure Is Not Required to Support Neurodiverse Patrons

There are multiple valid reasons neurodiverse patrons may not disclose their neurodivergence or request accommodations. 

  • For some, concealing disability is a priority to avoid stigma
    • “In the functionally diverse community, invisibility is a key survival skill and that includes not speaking up” (Pionke, 2017).
  • Some may not have a confirmed diagnosis
  • Some may not be aware they could be considered neurodivergent, particularly older patrons who grew up before improvements in awareness and diagnosis

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How Might Neurodiversity Appear from the Outside?

Awareness of these characteristics can help you avoid misinterpreting neurodivergent behaviors and better accommodate students’ needs.

  • Some possible manifestations of Autism Spectrum Disorders:
    • Attention
      • Staring at a speaker without taking notes
        • Not everyone looks the same way when they are paying attention. A student with a flat, disengaged affect may just have a different way of processing information.
      • Difficulty making eye contact
    • Physicality
      • Appearing fidgety or restless
      • Seeming overwhelmed by lights and/or sounds
    • Speech/communication
      • Reluctance/hesitancy to speak, or not speaking at all
        • In addition to different levels of comfort with speech in general, neurodivergent students may experience great reluctance or anxiety around asking for help
      • Unusual or flat tone when speaking 
      • Giving off-topic answers to questions
      • Difficulty interpreting humor or figures of speech
  • Chronic PTSD can mimic ADHD or autism. This may look like:
    • Sensitivity to excessive sensory experience (sounds, light, textures)
    • Hyperfocus on tasks or distractions
    • Note that fight, flight, or freeze are common responses to trauma triggers

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Helping Neurodivergent Patrons Prepare for the Library

Understanding what to expect at the library and what is offered can help patrons mentally prepare for their visit and interactions with employees. Make service offerings and accommodations easy to find on the web. This is not only informative, but shows your library prioritizes supporting diversity

  • Be explicit about what resources are available, such as:
    • Technology, assistive devices, or sensory items that can be checked out
    • Sensory-friendly spaces or rooms
    • Transportation options
    • How to contact the library disability liaison (if you have one)
  • Describe library conventions, expectations, and “rules”
    • How books are shelved
    • Which library areas are for quiet study, and which allow conversation (include maps) (Anderson, 2018)
    • How long different items can be checked out
  • Create detailed videos with sample scripts for different library interactions, such as
    • How to ask to check out a book or item
    • How to ask for research help
    • How to reserve a study room

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Multimodal Communication

  • Communication options through text, email, or chat can lower social anxiety barriers (Bloss et al, 2020), and may be the only format individuals with communication disorders can use (Lund, 2021).
  • However, depending on which areas of communication patrons struggle with, they may have different preferences. Offering multiple options is important.
    • Some have difficulty getting help over chat (can’t type fast enough); others with phone help (not knowing who/where to call) (Pionke, 2017).
  • Send outreach over multiple channels for communication – e.g. emails and posters – as different people prefer different modes of outreach
  • Offer print and online versions of handouts

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In-person Communication

  • Signage and text
    • Create signs that set expectations for different areas of the library – eg, where food is allowed and not allowed, which areas are quiet and which permit conversation, how to navigate space (Bloss et al, 2020)
    • Employ universal design principles for signage to make signs clearer and more accessible
    • Use graphics and visual information in signage – aids patrons with dyslexia (Elam, 2023)
    • Prefer sans serif, monospaced, and roman font styles for better readability (Potter, 2023)
    • Change screen readers to default to using dyslexic-friendly fonts (Potter, 2023)
  • Interaction at service points
    • Approach patron interactions with mindfulness. This means observing and listening to a patron without judgment to help you cultivate empathy and compassion (Pionke, 2017).
    • Be open to the possibility of invisible disability when a patron requests an accommodation that might not sound like an accommodation
      • For example: a patron who asks to leave a backpack at the desk while they go to get coffee may have a physical or mental condition that makes handling both simultaneously much more stressful (Pionke, 2017)
    • Neurodivergent students may have greater rejection sensitivity and benefit from patience and encouragement during interactions (Cho, 2018).
    • Don’t assume how much a patron knows about a topic or what they need. Find out where they are and meet them at their knowledge/comfort level – don’t talk over their head, or down to them (Lund, 2021).
    • Offer alternative forms of communication like word boards (Pionke, 2017)
    • Do not assume the best way to communicate with a patron – ask what they prefer (e.g., would a deaf patron prefer to read lips, or have notes passed to them?) (Lund, 2021)
    • Tips for verbal accommodation of communication disorders (Lund, 2021)
      • Maintain eye contact as a means of reiterating/reinforcing what you say
      • Enunciate and speak slower (but don’t overdo it)
      • Reinforce spoken meanings with gestures or pointing
      • Avoid library jargon and words with multiple meanings
      • It’s okay to repeat yourself or be redundant
    • It’s okay not to be perfect, especially for patrons with severely affected communication. Just be respectful and do your best (Lund, 2021)

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The best way to make your library work for neurodivergent patrons and employees is to partner with them to collaboratively identify and develop support strategies. Demonstrate your commitment by educating yourself and meeting these groups in the spaces they feel comfortable with.

A good librarian trying to reach out to an underserved and little understood population, needs to become part of that population and understand the needs and desires of that population from within.”

Pionke, 2017
  • Neurodivergent students are more likely to reach out to library employees they know personally. Here are some ways you might seek connections:
    • Institute personal librarian programs
    • Engage with students in a variety of places on campus
    • Attend social events that are likely to include/draw neurodivergent students
    • Keep business cards with you so you can easily supply contact information when you make these connections
  • Partner with other groups on campus that work with neurodivergent students, such as the Access or Disability Services Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, or first-year programs aimed at neurodivergent students. See if they can help you get in front of students to talk about the library, or invite students to contribute to listening sessions where you learn from them.
  • Ask students to help identify barriers to their use of the library space, and continue to get their input as you develop solutions. Some ways to get their opinions could include focus groups or ethnographic studies of how they navigate the library.
  • Keep neurodivergent students in the loop if you make changes intended to help them. They can help guide you if your intervention misses its mark
    • For instance: one library moved its fidget toys from a check-out area in the front desk to unrestricted access in a more secluded area when students expressed discomfort at being seen checking them out (Boyer & El-Chidiac, 2023).
  • Educate yourself about neurodiversity
    • Seek out training programs, such as Project ENABLE
    • Recommended books by Cho (2018): Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism by Chantal Sicile-Kira (WorldCat) and Understanding Autism for Dummies by Stephen M. Shore and Linda G Rastelli (WorldCat)
  • If you can, hire more neurodiverse employees and give them opportunities to be visible in the library. See the Management and Workplace toolkit section on supporting neurodiverse employees.
  • Hire or assign a disability liaison, make this person easy to find/contact, and refer people to them.
  • Neurotypical students may react more favorably to neurodivergent students if they are more aware of the expressions and challenges of neurodivergence. Promote education of neurotypical students about neurodiversity with educational panels and other events.

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