Let’s make libraries more accessible, says Alison Tarrant, CEO of the School Library Association.
Building an authentic reading culture and an inclusive school library can help primary school librarians and teachers navigate the challenge of individualised support. The development of school libraries to have a more inclusive approach to reading and learning ensures that no child is left behind. Building on the current best practice is important for continuing to open up the world of books to children with autism and other neurological differences, to ensure that they are able to have broad and enriching education opportunities, which will have an improved impact on their academic achievements and their general wellbeing.
As Chief Executive of the School Library Association (SLA), I have witnessed some progress over the last few years as the world of literacy and libraries has become more inclusive and accessible. Children with neurological disorders, in particular children with autism spectrum disorder, can often face distinct challenges when learning to read. At the SLA, we have supported schools with guidance on how to adapt libraries so that they are more inclusive and promote a culture that motivates all readers and primary schools in recent years have improved significantly to become more inclusive for neurodivergent pupils, opening up a world of literature filled with knowledge and imagination that had too often been inaccessible.
Children with autism who are enrolled in mainstream education sometimes require additional encouragement and support. These children often report feeling anxious about attending school, which means the environment where they read needs to be tailored to their specific needs. With the right guidance, support and resources, the school library can be the place where they can engage and be themselves. School library staff can transform a library into a space which not just caters for these children’s additional needs,but helps them discover a genuine love of reading. There are two key ways the school library can do this: providing a safe, accessible and engaging space which can provide a sanctuary, and the provision of reading resources that reflect them, their personality and interests.
Librarians can foster an environment that encourages reading for all pupils. We can create spaces where pupils actively want to pick up books and get stuck into new stories, and find new information. It is important, when working in schools, to not overlook small changes that can be made to make learning more inclusive and accessible. The great thing about a reading for pleasure culture is that it’s down to the individual; everyone’s choice is important and valid. Being able to choose without criticism can be a game-changer for children, and reading to pupils encourages both reading for pleasure and improves reading ability. Every small additional change makes a difference, and if every primary school was able to implement these best practices, there would be an increase in neurodivergent pupils across the country feeling confident to pick up a book in their school library.
If schools were able to implement practices such as allowing children to choose the books they liked to read, including comic books, magazines or e-books, this would empower pupils. Reading should not be exclusively relegated to the realm of fiction novels. All reading is good reading and children should be encouraged to read in forms that fit their interests and passions. This is particularly important for children with autism because they often have specific and focused interests. By allowing the literature they read to be about these interests you encourage their learning by making it more engaging and fun. And by making it so, the library often becomes one of their passions, also providing them with an opportunity to learn leadership skills as a Pupil Library Assistant.
Additionally, by providing a wide range of books, libraries can support all cohorts of pupils, especially those who may sometimes find themselves facing barriers to entering the world of literature. Giving pupils a choice of what they can read allows them to take ownership of their reading, and a wider selection of books increases the chance of children finding a story they can relate to. Children need to see themselves reflected in the stories that they engage with. Often children with autism may not see themselves in characters in the books available to them. By ensuring that the resources feature a wide range of diverse characters, they will find stories they can relate to. Sometimes staying up to date with these books can be difficult, so many turn to the SLA’s reading recommendations page for individualised recommendations from experts.