Story Time for the Spectrum

Sensory Story Time at Fauquier County Public Library

by Lisa Pavlock, Fauquier County Public Library

Library story times are fun-filled programs comprised of reading books, singing songs, making music, and playing with friends. Story times help children build early literacy skills while learning social skills. Being read to is widely recognized as an important building block to early literacy and ultimately, lifelong success. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the value of reading to young children as a way to develop school readiness, and recommends reading aloud to infants from birth.

Story times are an easy way for parents and caregivers to expose their children to books, songs and music. However, some children are overwhelmed by large groups, can’t tolerate loud noise, are anxious about change, or are non-verbal. For these children and their parents, story time is not always fun, and parents who have a child with autism or other special needs often avoid story time, worried about how others will react to their child.

A different kind of story time

In 2017, a library patron asked if the library could offer a story time accessible to children with autism and special needs. Library Assistant Ellen Richmond-Hearty, a former teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, and retired Fauquier County Public School teacher, took up the challenge. Turning to the internet, Ms. Richmond-Hearty learned that many libraries offer “sensory story times” to meet the needs of children with autism and special needs. She visited a sensory story time at a Fairfax County Public Library, completed online training, and met with Fauquier County Public School preschool providers to better understand how to structure a sensory story time. She proposed adding a sensory story time to the library’s lineup of story time activities. Friends of the Fauquier Library stepped in to provide funding to purchase the necessary supplies, and within weeks the plan to offer the new story time was in place. In April 2018 the first Sensory Story Time was held, to the delight of parents and children alike.

What to expect

The Fauquier County Library Sensory Story Time is similar to typical story times, with adaptations. It is designed to meet the needs of children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities, but siblings and other children are also welcome. The size of the group is intentionally kept small, with registration required. Children who have difficulty sitting still, cry, need to walk around the room, or need a fidget toy to stay calm are warmly accepted.

“We prefer Sensory Story Time because it allows for the much needed movement for our daughter, who has some sensory seeking behaviors. They do activities related to the featured books in between that are very much needed, allowing her to participate fully during circle time and learn,” said Willette Trevis, whose five-year-old daughter Madison attends Sensory Story Time.

Each story time follows a familiar routine, beginning with an opening song that includes each participant’s name. A picture schedule showing each element of the story time is posted at the top of a flannel board. As each step of the schedule is completed, the picture is removed and the children can see which activity is next. This enables children to handle transitions more easily. Children sit on carpet squares that help them have a sense of space and have small stuffed animals to hold if desired.

Richmond-Hearty carefully chooses books for Sensory Story Time. “I look for books with clear, attractive pictures, few words or short sentences on the page, sing-able or rhyming text, and opportunities for the children to interact with the story,” said Richmond-Hearty.

An experienced sign language instructor, Richmond-Hearty uses sign language simultaneously with books, songs and flannel stories. Because the group is small, there are enough flannel pieces to go around and time for each child to place their piece on the board. Richmond-Hearty often gives the children an opportunity to interact with the story, such as practicing their animal sounds while reading The Seals on the Bus or imitating the movement of construction vehicles while reading Tip Tip Dig Dig.

Movement is an integral part of Sensory Story Time. Songs, shakers, and scarves add to the fun, but also help children learn body parts, recognize colors and practice numbers. A special closing song includes bubbles blown individually for each child. When story time is over, children have time to play with the provided toys while parents share stories and offer advice and support to each other.

The response to Sensory Story Time has been overwhelmingly positive and parents of older children soon requested an additional sensory story time for slightly older children. In response, School-Age Sensory Fun was launched in February.

Sensory Story Time and School-Age Sensory Fun are offered at the Warrenton central library on the third Saturday of each month. Registration is required; call (540) 422-8500 ext. 6864 to register or for additional information.


Upcoming dates:

Sensory Story Time: Preschool children 2 – 6 years: Saturday, April 20, 10:30 a.m.

School-Age Sensory Fun: Children Age 7 – 10: Saturday, April 20, 3 p.m.


Favorite books for Sensory Story Time

Ages 2 – 6

Dig, Dump, Roll by Sally Sutton

A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Dog’s Colorful Day by Emma Dodd

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin

Ages 7 – 10

Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin

In The Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming

Cat’s Colors by Jane Cabrera

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

Move Over, Rover by Karen Beaumont

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