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Libraries and Autism: We're Connected

The Scotch Plains Public Library (NJ) and the Fanwood Memorial Library (NJ) produced a customer service training video to help library staff serve individuals with autism and their families more effectively. The video focuses on what you need to know about autism spectrum disorder and empowers the viewer with specific techniques to offer more inclusive and comprehensive customer service when interacting with this growing and underserved population. Nationally, autism affects one in every 150 individuals, and in New Jersey, as many as one in ninety-four.

The video was created by the two libraries as a part of the "Welcoming Library Spaces for the Autism Community and Their Families" incubator project, which was made possible by a contract with Infolink: The Eastern New Jersey Regional Library Cooperative. The Cooperative and its services are funded by the New Jersey State Library, which is responsible for the coordination, promotion and funding of the New Jersey Library Network. This was one of six successful projects funded to meet the strategic need for libraries to provide services in proactive and creative ways to children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families. "We commend Infolink for choosing this important health topic for its pilot program," said Norma Blake, New Jersey State Librarian. "The project exemplifies the best work that libraries can do to help people - to be a valuable resource for parents and families, making their lives easier and better"

The success of the video project is the result of the cooperative partnership the libraries have embraced over the past 3 years, and the contributions of many partners and participants. The libraries engaged the services of Engel Entertainment, a renowned documentary production company based in New York City, and all aspects of the video were overseen by producer, director and cinematographer Mary Olive Smith. In addition, replicated DVDs of the video were sent to every public library in New Jersey, many schools, special and academic libraries, as well as to every New Jersey State legislator.

As suggested in the video, the two libraries provided additional in-depth training to their combined staff as well as to local school media specialists. The session was conducted by representatives from our project partners: Dr. Linda Meyer, Executive Director of COSAC, The NJ Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community; Dr. Jill Harris, Director of Psychology and Coordinator of The Autism Center of Excellence at Children's Specialized Hospital; and Adrienne Robertiello, Founder of Community Partnership for People with Autism.

Staff members are enthusiastic about the training they received and ready to embrace their role as ambassadors for their libraries, confidently utilizing new strategies and tips. As a result of this training, the libraries now display the Libraries and Autism: We're Connected decals on their front doors to alert the community to the staff's newly heightened awareness and willingness to provide inclusive service. In addition, the libraries, which share a combined database, have developed a large, up-to-date collection of resources available to assist the many individuals, families and professionals who are dealing with this spectrum of disorders.

As the project evolved, it became clear a website would be the best way to share and disseminate the depth and variety of valuable information and tools that were created. Libraries and other organizations are encouraged to explore the site (www.thejointlibrary.org/autism), watch the video and make free use of the support resources. The video was posted to YouTube and has already begun to generate national and international attention from both libraries and individuals in the autism community. As one parent who responded to the online survey said, "It was about time that the community got involved in such an important topic. We need the support. I took my son to the library a couple times when he was 3, right before his diagnosis, since then I never took him back because people used to stare at us when he was acting up. My son is now 8 and after I found out about your web site, I took him back last week. Thank you for the great info and support!"

The video and website clearly achieved one of the stated goals of the initial project, which was to create a documented model to serve as a replicable program for other libraries. Cheryl O'Connor, Executive Director of INFOLINK stated; "We are thrilled by the enthusiasm this project has generated within both the library and autism communities. The need is now for libraries to serve the autism community, and this professionally produced staff training film empowers them to do so effectively. "

An additional benefit was the realization that the basic customer services skills and techniques provided can serve as universal models for best-practices library service to all members of the public. Good service provision is universal regardless of who the target group is and whether it's in a library or at some other public agency, business, retail outlet, healthcare facility, restaurant, or retail outlet. These service tips and strategies can be successfully utilized, with little or no modification, by any group dealing with the general public where there is a desire or mandate to be inclusive of those in the autism community.

Our goal now with this project is to spread the word as widely as possible. This training and information has had a tremendously positive impact on our own staff and the towns we serve, and we know it has the potential to do likewise for others. The project has been garnering great responses from both the library and autism communities. After a workshop session for Children's librarians in Pennsylvania, Susan Pannebaker, State Youth Services Advisor said, "Thank you so much for a great program! You have really put together an easy to replicate program for all public libraries. Everyone left talking about what they were going to do when they got back to work today. To me that shows great success; usually I hear - if only I had money to do that."

The video and website resources provide an excellent starting point. As recommended in the film, an extended workshop session will drive home the message and spirit by providing training to learn about autism spectrum disorder, and will empower staff with specific techniques to offer more inclusive and comprehensive customer service. Meg Kolaya and Dan Weiss are making themselves available to provide these in-depth customer service training workshops for the library community.

For more information about this project and to receive a free "Libraries and Autism: We're Connected" decal for your library, please contact the libraries at [email protected].

Press Contact:
Meg Kolaya, Director, Scotch Plains Public Library
[email protected]
908.322.5007 x202

[email protected]
Dan Weiss, Director, Fanwood Memorial Library
[email protected]
908.322.6400

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