New Jersey Librarians receive training in Sensory Programming for Children with Special Needs & Their Families

On October 15, 2012 at the Scotch Plains (NJ) Public Library, NJ librarians heard Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski (Youth Services Supervisor at the Maple Heights Branch of the Cuyahoga County (OH) Public Library) speak about techniques for presenting sensory storytimes and school-age programming for children with special needs and their families. One attendee reported that the presentation was, “extremely helpful in learning more about Sensory Library Programming. I left the workshop feeling inspired and excited, and hope to begin taking the next step in starting a Sensory Storytime Program.”  Another attendee said, “Tricia was a very informative presenter with concrete programming ideas which would be useful in any special needs programming.  I have several ideas (program cards, puppets/props for interactive storybook, specific ways to set a calm tone) that I'm interested in implementing.”

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This unique opportunity, offered free to participants, was made possible by collaboration between Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected ( and New Jersey’s Karma Foundation ( who provided a generous grant to support the workshops. With the recent release of new CDC statistics documenting an alarming increase in the autism rate, this workshop and the topics addressed by Libraries and Autism have become more and more compelling, timely and important than ever.

Tricia Twarogowski is an acknowledged expert on the topic of sensory programs specific to children with special needs and their families. She began her work in this field at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina.  At the 2012 Public Library Association Pre-Conference in Philadelphia, a standing-room-only crowd came to hear about her groundbreaking work. These two workshops were her first presentations in New Jersey.

What is sensory programming? Loosely defined, it is a program incorporating components of storytime programs (book, flannels, music) – yet also encouraging participants in one of more of the following: movement, art, messy play, balance, body awareness and other activities which engage the senses.

While Tricia’s approach to programming is geared to all types of special needs, the primary focus for this program is the child with ASD. Tricia has written extensively about her successful approach in a 5-part series for the American Library Association’s ALSC blog. Often families with children who have special needs do not feel comfortable at their local libraries. This sensory approach allows both parents and children to feel relaxed and accepted in a library program setting by simple changes in noise level, repetitive activities and an understanding of sensory processing disorders by the group leader. Once comfortable at the library, these families are then encouraged to engage in the full range of resources available through public libraries.

Meg Kolaya and Dan Weiss, who are responsible for the Libraries and Autism initiative, continue their work on a national level to help raise autism awareness and to provide library staff members with strategies that enable them to provide excellent and inclusive service to individuals with autism spectrum disorder and to their families at the library. The program has reached an international audience as well, with outreach in Australia, Ghana, Belgium, Korea and Canada. Libraries and Autism was initially part of Infolink Regional Library Cooperative’s Welcoming Spaces project spearheaded by its executive director Cheryl O’Connor. The award-winning project, begun in 2008, produced a customer service training video and website for library staff to help them serve individuals with autism and their families more effectively.  It helps librarians focus on what they need to know about autism, and delivers specific techniques to offer more inclusive and effective service to this growing and underserved population. It stresses communication, customer service, using individuals on the ASD spectrum and with other developmental disabilities as staff and volunteers in the library, explores specific programming strategies that work well, the importance of connecting and partnering with local experts, and empowering staff to be willing to ‘do something’ within a climate of acceptance and inclusion.

While exploring implementation of best practices and universal service for people with ASD and their families, many library staff recognized these principles can serve as universal models for best-practices library service to all members of the public.