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Berkshire Athenaeum Launching Story Time For Autistic Children
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
11:49AM / Friday, March 03, 2017
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The library purchased sensory toys specifically designed for children on the autism scale.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Many parents of children with autism are worried about taking their children to public areas. They're not sure how others will react to their child's behavior. 
But the Berkshire Athenaeum wants those parents and children to know: you're welcome here.
The library is launching a new story time for children with autism and have purchased sensory toys specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum. The program is part of a two-year grant to improve the library's work with people with various disabilities.
"It's a challenge to get families with these children to get to come and do new things," said Children's Librarian Nan Pearson. "We're caring people and want to do whatever we can to make them feel comfortable."
The new fidget toys are specifically designed to be calming, promote focus, and decrease stress. The toys range from small configurations or shaped like frogs to spongy balls that are used like a stress ball, to a weighted snake, which is hung around a child's shoulders or placed on their lap. The weighted toys help centers and calm the child. 
Additionally, the library is looking to start a sensory story time. Pearson says the traditional story times can lead to a lot of chaos with the multiple children all at once. The sensory story time programs have been custom crafted to provide prompts and a structure to help the children follow the story line and transition from one activity to the next. 
The first two are scheduled for March 14 and March 21 both at 11 a.m. Pearson says she wants to have the story times be held on a monthly basis. 
"After that, we are hoping to do one a month on the second Tuesday," Pearson said. 
Helping with the rollout of the new program, the children's library staff has been working with Sarah Lynn from The Pediatric Development Center. Lynn has been providing instruction and helping staff better understand what an autistic child is going through and how to work with the child.
"She gave us some examples of things these kids experience," Pearson said. 
The library had eyed such a program for a while now, noticing it was a gap in its offerings. The library is now to continue the program and is planning ways to reach out those families to make sure they know they are welcomed.
"We've learned these families often don't feel comfortable in a traditional library story time. This was a gap in our services, a need, and we wanted to create a welcoming space for these kids and their parents,"  Pearson said.
The autism program is just one effort that came from a $17,500 federal grant. The Library Services and Technology Act provided funding from October 2015 until this upcoming October for the athenaeum to improve its services. 
"It's about having the opportunity with the funds to understand the needs of the community and address them in a variety of ways that are sustainable," said Reference Services Supervisor Madeline Kelly, who headed the grant initiative. 
The library has been able to purchase two types of software — Zoomtext and JAWS — for those with visibility challenges. The software reads what is on a computer screen for someone who is blind or has limited eyesight. The library is equipped with headphones to allow those patrons to use the computers and new special keyboards with bump dots to help them type.
The Berkshire Athenaeum has also reached a partnership with the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library to provide books for those with visual disabilities. 
In the future, the library is going to be looking more closely at the programming space to see if more can be done for whose with hearing difficulties.
"This has to do with listening to the community and responding as best we can," Kelly said, adding that she encourages people from the community to share their thoughts and needs with library staff.
A large portion of the grant was also spent on training staff members, bringing in experts from various service agencies, and an array of library materials for those with disabilities the library would have otherwise struggled to afford. 
The autism program in the children's library was also given a boost from the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum, which donated $1,000 to get it started with the purchase of the toys and books. That group is all-volunteer and supports the library mostly through book sales. The next one of those is scheduled the weekend of March 14 through March 21. 
All told, Kelly says "we have laid some good groundwork" but there is more to be done. Even when the grant expires, Kelly says the library will continue to find ways to improve its service for people with disabilities.
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