He Has Autism. He Doesn't Speak.

Posted by Karen on 15th May 2023

Guest Blogger:

Sarah Ringer Alverson

Community Engagement Administrator 

Durham County Library

He has autism. He doesn’t speak” the boy's father said to me as they came further into the mobile-sensory environment we had set up as part of a large community event. I had taken a color controller for our bubble tube and was asking the boy his favorite color. I smiled at the father, and then promptly ignored him, in that respectful way a former children's librarian does when they want to engage with the child, not the adult.


I had spotted the father and son from my vantage point at the back of the event long before they came into the sensory area. I watched as the elementary-aged boy reached up to his father to be held as soon as they crossed the threshold of the noisy, crowded gym. The father carried his son from station to station, and I watched as the boy hid his face in his father's neck. And I noticed when the color­ changing bubble tube caught the boy's eye as they walked closer to our mobile­ sensory environment while he refused to engage with a single person the entire length of the gym.


Fairly quickly, the boy was sitting beside me on the floor, using the controller to change the tube's colors on his own. To maintain the engagement, I began to say the color of the tube as he changed it. "Blue ... yellow ... green ... red ... " over and over again. A few minutes later I realized I was not the only one saying the name of the colors. The boy was saying them with me. Thinking that I had misunderstood the father's initial comment about his son not speaking, I looked up at him. His mouth was hanging open, obviously surprised as well. Dragging the father down to the floor, I helped him take my spot to engage with his son. Forty-five minutes later, the boy and his father got up and left, hand in hand, the father thanking me as they went. On their walk back through the gym, the boy smiled and interacted with the people, even picking up some of the activities to participate and play with his father.


This was the first moment where I felt entirely justified in my pursuit to bring sensory spaces to Durham County Library. At first, my plan was to create calming spaces for individuals who felt overstimulated by their environment and just needed a place to gather themselves. I had multiple conversations with caregivers, families, and self-advocates who told me the reason they did not come to the library more often was because of the “What If” question- what if I got overwhelmed and overstimulated by the unfamiliar around me, what if my son experienced a meltdown, what if my father forgot where he was… the list goes on and on. So I wanted to create a safe space for our community when they came to the library, just like this little boy had in the overwhelming, overstimulating environment of the gym.


And this moment was the first time where I decided I wanted to go a step further, instead of just providing a calming space, I also wanted to provide a stimulating and engaging space for our community. Watching that father interact with his son in an entirely new way was incredible to watch, and I began to wonder how many families in our community would benefit from a similar situation.


So these encounters resulted in a years-long journey to provide more inclusive services in Durham County Library. We specifically created the Sensory Calming Room, open to the public at all times and available as needed for as long as one needed, and the Multi Sensory Environment, a stimulating and engaging space available by reservation. We also developed the Inclusive Play Area in our Children’s area that featured equipment that encouraged interactive sensory play.


Since the development on these spaces, we have watched family members engage with their loved ones in new ways that they had never been able to previously. We have seen professional caregivers bring their clients to the spaces and incorporate therapy lessons with a visit to their community library to check out books. We have seen adults with ADHD find a moment of peace while relaxing in the beautiful space. I have watched my own dad with Alzheimer’s find fascination in the repetition and soothing voice of the bubble tubes as we had one of the best conversions we had in years. Once again, the list goes on and on.


More than anything, we have seen a community, that previously, had very limited interaction with their public library, suddenly find a space where they are welcomed and belong. A space that can be adapted to meet their needs, the needs of their family, the needs of their clients and friends. So often, people are amazed that we have these spaces available for free, in a public library. And with every encounter, we receive gratitude but also grace, for taking so long to have spaces like this in our library. 

Thank you Sarah for sharing your story with our community. Your experience helps others see the meaning and value sensory spaces have for creating inclusivity in public spaces. If you would like to share your story, please contact Karen Pool at karen@tfhusa.com or 800-467-6222.