A quieter library experience

  • Sunderland Public Library's back yard. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Staff Photo/Domenic PoliSunderland Public Library

  • Katherine Hand, director of the Sunderland Public Library. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Katherine Hand director of the Sunderland Public Library on Tuesday afternoon at the library. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • A library patron reads the paper while her son plays in the bi-weekly Lego Club at the Sunderland library. STAFF FILE PHOTO/Beth Reynolds

  • SUNDERLAND (January 25, 2014) Loie Acton, 7, learn a sword dance with her friends in the community room taught by That Long Tall Sword -a longsword and mumming team from Amherst. Photo by Beth ReynoldsNew arrivals at the Sunderland Library.

  • SUNDERLAND (January 25, 2014) The Sunderland Library. Photo by Beth Reynolds

For the Recorder
Published: 1/16/2020 11:44:58 AM
Modified: 1/16/2020 11:44:05 AM

Starting today, Sunderland Public Library on School Street will begin offering monthly Sensory Friendly Hours on the Third Thursday of each month from 1 to 5 p.m. The goal of the library’s new service is to provide a more comfortable library experience for people on the autism spectrum and to give caregivers a chance to meet in a supportive environment. This program is part of the library’s efforts to improve their services to people on the autism spectrum, a year-long, grant-funded project sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

People on the autism spectrum tend to process sensory stimuli differently than most people. Bright lights, loud noises, textures, colors and other input can be distracting or uncomfortable. While many might not think of libraries as noisy or active environments, for people with sensory processing disorders, public environments such as libraries can be challenging. More and more, we see libraries becoming bustling social hubs in our communities where private study and engaged social discourse coexist. Libraries shelves are filled with books of all colors, shapes, and sizes and our halls are filled with the murmur of fingers typing on keyboards, the turning of pages and the whispers of conversations. What is a calm, relaxing environment for many can be experienced quite differently by people on the autism spectrum.

Sunderland Public Library’s sensory-friendly hours will take place on days when the library is typically closed. This will allow library staff to provide a quieter and calmer environment and do things such as lower the lights, reduce ambient sounds and provide more focused attention towards patrons who would like extra assistance. The goal is to give people on the autism spectrum a chance to have the library experience that all patrons enjoy, but in a more controlled environment that is better suited to their unique needs.

The concept of sensory-friendly hours and services is not new. Many grocery stores have begun offering special sensory-friendly hours, where the lights are lowered, the beeping of scanners is turned off, and extra staff is available for assistance. Movie theaters have also been early adopters of sensory-friendly events, offering sensory-friendly movie screenings where the sound is lower, the lights are dimmed (but not turned off completely) and audience members attend with the understanding that attendees will need to get up, move and make noise during the film.

This understanding of special sensory needs and the behaviors people with sensory processing disorders may exhibit is the core of what makes an event sensory-friendly, according to the Sunderland Public Library’s grant advisory council. The grant advisory council, which is comprised of parents of children on the autism spectrum, has been working with the library director to ensure the library is a welcoming environment for their children and other people on the autism spectrum. One parent explained how uncomfortable it can be for her and her children to go to a new place or event where people may not understand her child on the autism spectrum’s behavior.

“I want to go to a place where I don’t have to worry about getting dirty looks when my child covers his ears and moans, or where he isn’t forced to look someone in the eyes. He isn’t being rude, he is just doing his best to adapt to a new environment. Having people who understand that around us makes us feel so much more welcome.”

Sunderland Public Library’s sensory-friendly hours also correlate with a new Sensory Friendly Playgroup, which will take place today from 3:30 to 5 p.m. This all-ages playgroup will be open to people of all abilities but will feature activities, games and crafts designed with people on the autism spectrum in mind. Families who want the quietest library experience are encouraged to visit the library’s sensory-friendly hours early in the afternoon, while those who want a more active experience are encouraged to visit the library during the playgroup.

A social story about the library is available at the library and on the library’s website (sunderlandpubliclibrary.org) for families who want to learn what to expect upon their first visit to the library.

The Sunderland Public Library staff hope that the sensory-friendly hours will encourage more people on the autism spectrum to visit their local library, and hope that other library visitors will be understanding of the fact that the library environment will be different and fewer services will be offered on this one day per month.

Katherine Hand is director of the Sunderland Public Library.


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