Physical Environments

Library Environmental Scan

Adapted from Targeting Autism for Libraries handout from the Project Enable website; shared with author’s permission.

People who are neurodivergent or have cognitive disabilities can have sensory sensitivities. They may avoid certain sensory experiences because they are literally painful or they may seek out certain sensory experiences because they require the sensory input.  As you move about your library, take a look at the following elements to see if your library provides a neuroinclusive environment for patrons:

Sight / Visual Sense

  • What are the colors in your environment?  Low arousal, such as beige and pastel colors, or high arousal colors such as red, orange and bright green?
  • What are the patterns on your furniture or carpet?  Are they busy and distracting or more subdued?
  • Is the environment cluttered or organized?  Are pathways clear and furniture arranged with space in between to navigate through?  (Some people with autism find it helpful if furniture is along the sides of a room with the center kept open and clear.)
  • Does the library have fluorescent lighting or more subdued lighting?
  • How is natural light used from windows and skylights?  Are there certain times of day that this light is bothersome to patrons?  If so, have you considered blinds or curtains?
  • Signage – are your signs visually clear?  Do you provide pictures or icons along with words?  Is there a building/ floor/ department map so that patrons can easily navigate the library?
  • Have you considered how visually impaired patrons might navigate your library?  Is Braille signage utilized?  Consider furniture placement and clear pathways.
  • Collections: picture books, visual technology

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Hearing / Auditory Sense

  • What is the overall noise level in your library or in various library departments?  Are there certain days or times when the noise level is high?
  • Do you have a quiet room or a quiet space for patrons to go when they feel overwhelmed?  Is this space included on your floor map? 
  • Do you have signage indicating different noise level zones?
  • Assess the quieter parts of the library; is there noise such as clocks ticking, or road noise outside?
  • Do you provide noise canceling headphones for patrons who wish to wear them?
  • What about the flooring and walls – are there places where sound echoes or reverberates due to tile/ concrete floors or high ceilings?  How might that be minimized?
  • Remember – some people with autism have extraordinary hearing and can be bothered by the buzzing from fluorescent lights.  Having a quiet place that does not use fluorescent lighting is optimal.
  • Collections: audio books, audio materials and resources, technology that is both visual and auditory

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Body / Vestibular and Proprioceptive Senses

  • Are pathways clear and uncluttered?
  • Is furniture arranged in an effective way to minimize obstructions?
  • Is furniture stationary or does it move? Do you have a rocking chair or other furniture accommodations that can provide some movement while reading or studying?
  • Do steps and walkways have railings? Do you have an elevator or a ramp? Does the ramp have a railing?
  • Have you considered varying heights of furniture, desks, shelves, etc.?
  • Do you have programming that involves movement? Are movement breaks built into instructional sessions?

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Somatosensory – Includes Touch / Tactile Sense

  • Are there sensory materials in the library for individuals to touch and explore? Are they age appropriate?  (For example you might have a sand table in the children’s area and fidgets in the adult area.) How accessible are these items?  Does someone have to ask for them or are they a natural part of your library?
  • Are there reading coves or “caves” provided for those who like to squeeze into small spaces?  Is there a sensory item like a blanket inside?
  • What is the fabric like on your furniture?  Is it soft?  Is it scratchy?  What about counters, tables and other surfaces?
  • Have you considered individuals who might have fine motor difficulties?  (Books with spiral bindings or clips on pages can be useful.)
  • How is the temperature in your library?  Are there rooms that are too cool or too warm?  Do times of day and natural lighting affect temperature?
  • Collections: Include books with textures or that provide tactile input, such as Make Van Gogh’s Bed, by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo (a touch-the-art series).  Include books or book covers with other interesting textures for older children and adults too. Technology – touch screens?

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Smell / Olfactory Sense

  • Are there smells that come into your library that could be bothersome to some patrons, such as food smells from a nearby restaurant?
  • Are there times when smells can drift from room to room?  Have you considered how you might isolate or minimize this effect?
  • What about the cleaning products used?  Do these have a harsh smell?
  • Collections: books with scratch and sniff, markers with scents

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Tips & Tricks


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  • Quiet study/reading areas
  • Unobstructed aisles in stacks – some students report feeling ‘hemmed in’ or oppressed by crowded/tall shelving & aisles.
  • Sensory rooms
    • Fidget toys, soft lighting, rocking chairs
    • ‘Crash’ furniture (soft and safe for flopping down on) (Bahrampour & deCourcy Hinds, 2022)
    • Nature elements – plants, waterfall/fountain, art, sounds 

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Wayfinding / Signage

  • Use dyslexic-friendly fonts for “everything at the library” (Potter, 2023).
  • Evaluate signage. Can you use pictures, visual information? (Elam & Mililli, 2023)
  • Organize your library into smaller “chunks”- consider genrefication (Elam & Mililli, 2023).
    • Color-coded sections; i.e. Green = 3rd floor
  • “Quality system of signs and instructions gives users a sense of security and orientation in the library space. Consequently users’ feeling of ‘wandering’ decreases and thus self-confidence increases.” (Gardijan, 2021)

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Tools and Practices

  • White noise machines (Potter, 2023)
  • Guided and self-guided library tours, including virtual tours (Gardijan, 2021)
  • Therapy animals during finals
  • Walkable labyrinth projected on the floor, helps with anxiety/mental focus (Cook & Croft, 2015).
  • Showcase disability-themed book displays, showcase more entertaining texts rather than academic ones; eye-catching, colorful covers (Bahrampour & deCourcy Hinds, 2022).
  • Normalize various book formats – print, audio, graphic novel, ebooks, etc. (Elam & Mililli, 2023)
  • Include students/patrons/staff in holistic service/participatory design of library spaces (Bahrampour & deCourcy Hinds, 2022); center user needs/behavior for entire service workflow.
    • i.e. Checking out a book might actually involve acquisitions/cataloging/stacks management/reference/circulation (Marquez & Downey, 2015).
  • Occupancy counters on library homepage (especially in libraries with cafes or busy entrance areas) helps with anxiety & sensory overload (Boyer & El-Chidiac, 2023).
  • “Find-a-space” service, searchable by accommodations provided.
  • Disposable earplugs (Boyer & El-Chidiac, 2023)
  • Weighted blankets (Boyer & El-Chidiac, 2023)
  • Fidget toys (Boyer & El-Chidiac, 2023)
    • Sanitizer for toys
    • Large variety of types (squishy balls, spinners, etc)
    • Make available without checkout (preserves privacy, reduces anxiety)

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