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"Sensory Story Time" For Families With Children On The Autism Spectrum

Jennifer Sodergren and her daughter, 3-year-old Lizzie, play with colorful scarves during a Jan. 8 Sensory Story Time held at the Weber Road Branch Library in Affton. photo by Diana Linsley.

January 12, 2018

There's a new kind of story time gaining popularity at local libraries, and it's getting rave reviews from children and their parents.

This isn't the story time where kids sit in a circle and listen to a librarian read a book – Sensory Story Time at the St. Louis County Library has kids on their feet dancing, singing, playing, drawing and even crawling through brightly-colored tunnels. The story-song-story-song-playtime format keeps kids engaged and allows for flexibility.

Geared toward families with children who have autism spectrum disorder or multi-sensory needs, Sensory Story Time comes with equipment the kids think is pretty cool – noise-canceling headphones, props to go along with the stories, Fidget Spinners, fun kinds of seats to sit or stand on and more. Blue covers placed on the harsh fluorescent overhead lights cast a soft glow on the room, making it more inviting for children with light sensitivities.

"It's very interactive – the kids are not expected to sit still or be quiet for 40 minutes," said Samantha Dozier, youth services librarian who leads story time at the Weber Road Branch. "Libraries are places for everyone, but sometimes it's difficult for parents of children with autism to feel comfortable bringing their kids here because they're afraid of being disruptive, so we created a space that was comfortable and safe for them. If kids get up to move around the room that's OK – we even encourage it."

Jennifer Mayer, a mother of four, is grateful for the program. The Mayers have been longtime patrons of the library's programs, but Sensory Story Time is perfect for her children with autism spectrum disorder.

Youth Services Librarian Samantha Dozier leads Sensory Story Time at the Weber Road Branch. Looking on are sisters Abigail and Talullah Reynolds. photo by Diana Linsley.

"I'm so happy to see this," said Mayer, as she watched Cameron, 2, and Alexis, 4, enjoying story time.

"It's fun, it's laid back and it's nice when I don't have to constantly say, 'Sorry, sorry, sorry,'" she said, adding she often apologizes to other parents when her children are disruptive. "It's a lot less pressure and we love that it's sensory friendly."

Mayer said it's also a welcome activity outside of a therapist's office that doesn't require a co-pay. It's something she wishes would have been available when her oldest daughter, who is also autistic, was younger.

She said the fact that kids are encouraged to get up and move around – and parents can join, too – helps Cameron with his mobility issues. She said Sensory Story Time has also helped Alexis interact with other children: "It helps bring her out of her shell and gets her interacting with her peers," Mayer said.

Crystal Showers-Maynard, who is also a regular at Sensory Story Time with her two children, has seen her 5-year-old son Dalton make great strides since they started attending.

"He used the noise-canceling headphones at first – what he called his 'ears' – and he wouldn't do anything," she said of Dalton, who has not been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but has difficulty focusing on tasks. "Now he's up in the mix with the other kids, playing and doing all of the things, and he doesn't even wear his 'ears' any more. He also met another boy his age and now they're friends, which is great."

There's also several families who attend Sensory Story Time whose children who do not have autism spectrum disorder, but the format suits them better.

"Lizzie (3 years old) has a hard time sitting still and the flexibility and the interactive nature is really great," her mother Jennifer Sodergren said as Lizzie draped herself in colorful scarves that went along with one of the stories. "The story-song-story-song-playtime moves at a pretty quick pace and keeps her engaged."

A Growing Trend

Story times and activities geared toward children with autism spectrum disorder are a growing trend in libraries across the country as the number of children diagnosed with the disorder continues to rise, according to St. Louis County Library Director Kristen Sorth.

"We realized we were missing out on having some families coming here because parents had concerns about bringing their children to regular story times," Sorth said.

Sensory Story Time has grown in popularity and drawn several "regulars" since the bi-monthly program started a year ago at the Weber Road Branch (held at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays of the month at 4444 Weber Road). Because of its success there, the library is expanding the program to its Prairie Commons Branch this month and the Daniel Boone Branch beginning in July. The program is designed for children ages 3-9, but children and siblings of other ages are welcome to attend.

Each hosting branch has a slideshow outlining where story time takes place and what activities it will include, which parents have found helpful for showing their children what they can expect. For more information, call 314-994-3300 or visit www.slcl.org.

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