An Interview with Author Carrie Rogers-Whitehead

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Do you wish your library had a handbook for serving patrons on the autism spectrum? Now it does. Carrie Rogers-Whitehead offers expert guidance in her RUSA award–winning book, Serving Teens and Adults on the Autism Spectrum. Henrietta Verma, a member of the RUSA nominating committee, interviewed Carrie about her book.

HV: Your readers may have served and interacted with autistic children patrons before and created programs and services for them. What should be the same and different when working with autistic teens and adults?

CR-W: First off, I’m happy to hear that any readers are working to create these type of programs for autistic teens and adults. There is a lack of services for those populations. In my experience, what should be the same is the care and attention any librarian gives to any patron who steps in the door. They should always be welcomed, listened to, informed of what’s going on in the library, and delivered a high quality of customer service. What is different between serving autistic children versus autistic teens and adults is recognizing that older individuals with autism may have additional comorbidities or care needed. Many children who attended a sensory storytime at age 4, for instance, have through years of occupational therapy and other supports mainstreamed with their peers and may need little support. While people never “age out” of autism, over time they learn more coping and social skills that can lead to less need for services as they age. But many teens and adults, who may have received a diagnosis late or did not have early intervention or other services, may need additional supports in the library. I wrote my book specifically about that segment of the autistic population, those individuals who may need lifetime care and support. A reader who plans programs and other services for these groups should take particular care in making the spaces adaptive and engaging for caregivers.

HV: If your library doesn’t have the resources to offer programs particularly for autistic patrons, how can existing programs be made accessible and enjoyable for these patrons?

CR-W: There are some physical and technological changes that libraries can make to welcome autistic patrons. Some include:

  • Dim lighting in program rooms.
  • Consider offering programs at times when the libraries aren’t as busy or specifically picking program times around caregiver schedules.
  • Have designated quiet areas of the library.
  • Make sure your website and library catalog is digitally accessible, such as with the Web Accessibility Initiative https://www.w3.org/WAI/.
  • Limit attendance to these programs. Consider requiring registration so you can have a chance to talk to the patron and/or caregiver about their needs.
  • Be flexible! Go with the flow and be ready to drop an idea or plan if needed.

HV: Are there certain programs or services that are good ways to get started when considering a focus on autistic teens and adults?

CR-W: In my book I talk about two types of programs that can be good starts for focusing on autistic teens and adults: crafting and gaming. I suggest both of these activities because they can help with encouraging social skills and decreasing anxiety. Having a common activity like making something or playing a tabletop game can reduce anxiety about making small talk. I specifically mention Dungeons and Dragons in my book because playing a character and following a story and guidelines is a way a person with many different kinds of abilities can fit in. Crafting and gaming, with their focus on touching and handling objects, can also help for those on the spectrum who may need additional sensory input.

HV: What are the best ways to perform outreach to autistic members of the community who may be unfamiliar with what the library has to offer them?

CR-W: Recognize that autistic members of the community may not be attending your library. Transportation is a big barrier for autistic adults and teens. They also may feel the library provides too much sensory overload, or they may have had a poor experience. I know from running sensory programs for years that some of my caregivers and patrons rarely, if ever, went to the library before the program. If you’re performing outreach, look outside your library first. For autistic adults in particular, reaching out to housing facilities or care centers may be a way to reach them. Also, partner with local nonprofits and other agencies serving autistic peoples to advertise.

HV: Can you offer tips for working with autistic volunteers?

CR-W: When working with volunteers, be able to make reasonable accommodations for them. This can mean allowing them to wear noise-cancelling headphones or to come in at certain times because transportation is an issue. Spend some extra time going over any volunteer rules and tasks with them; if you can share that visually as well as verbally, that is especially helpful. And treat them just like any other volunteer—if a neurotypical volunteer came in with concerns about the schedule, you would most likely accommodate them too.

HV: What does it mean to you to have won the RUSA award?

CR-W: This was real exciting for me. I’ve written several books and dozens of articles, but I guess I never saw myself as a “writer.” I was an (insert job title here) who happened to write books. I remember calling my parents first, who were so excited. They really encouraged my reading and writing as a young person. I hadn’t received a writing award since I was in elementary school winning a writing contest! It was real special, and I guess I should also call myself a writer now too!

**

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, MLIS, MPA, is founder of Digital Respons-Ability and has worked in libraries for more than a decade. Through her library work she created the first sensory program in the state of Utah for individuals with autism and received the Utah Librarian of the Year Award for that work. Rogers-Whitehead regularly trains and consults librarians and continues her work with individuals with autism with Digital Respons-Ability. She is author of Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field and Teen Fandom and Geek Programming: A Practical Guide for Librarians.

Henrietta (Etta) Verma, a librarian and author of the Credo IL Strategy Handbook, is Credo’s Customer Success Manager. She previously worked at public libraries and at an academic institution, where she developed IL curricula and taught science and engineering undergrads to find reliable research materials. At Credo, Etta talks to librarians about their IL needs, how to meet them, and how to get the word out to students and faculty about the library’s resources.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead’s book Serving Teens and Adults on the Autism Spectrum: A Guide for Libraries teaches readers how to create successful programming for individuals on the autism spectrum as they age.

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