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Jonas Mills was grinning ear-to-ear, alternately holding hands with the child next to him and clapping along to a song about fish splashing in a pond. His mom, Crystal Mills, clapped alongside him, watching him enjoy the Greenville County Library’s Sensory Story Time, a new program developed to allow more children to take part in the library’s popular learning activities.
Jonas, who is 2, has Angelman syndrome, a neurogenetic disorder that causes developmental disabilities. Crystal Mills has taken Jonas to other library programs, including Musical Jamboree and story time events, but found they weren’t a good fit.
“It was a little much and too many people,” Mills said. “He has sensory issues like those on the autism spectrum, and it was just too overwhelming.”
Mills’ issue was exactly what Youth Services Manager Karen Allen had in mind when she asked youth services librarians Terri Keaney and Lila Boynton to create a story time for children with special needs. Allen had heard about similar programs in other cities, and several families had approached the library about adding it to the list of offerings.
Keaney and Boynton conducted research over the summer, including working with Lisa Krutchik, occupational therapy supervisor at Kidnetics, the therapy department of the Greenville Health System’s Children’s Hospital.
“She gave us lots of ideas and suggestions about how to modify our story time with songs, activities and finger play and to let the kids have things in their hands,” Boynton said. “We let them participate, handing out story props they can wave around.”
“We don’t expect them to be quiet or still, because they aren’t going to be,” Keaney adds.
The first Sensory Story Time was held in September with about 10 children and their families in attendance. At the October event, Boynton and Keaney handed out a paper telescope for each child to peer through as they read the book “Shark in the Park.” The staff also makes sure to feature activities that keep the kids moving, including balls, cars and climbing tunnels.
They created a stockpile of ideas to entertain and educate kids on the autism spectrum or those with sensory issues, incorporating beanbags and “hand fidgets.” Something as simple as rolling a child up in a blanket like a hot dog goes a long way to helping them pay attention, said Krutchik, who helped the staff find ways to incorporate supplies they already had on hand to keep costs down.
The staff chooses music that is upbeat but not too loud or raucous to make sure it doesn’t overstimulate the children. They can also lower the brightness of the lights and avoid serving any food or drinks, since many of the children have allergies or need to avoid certain ingredients.
Many of the children do well with visual cues that let them know what’s coming up, so at the beginning of each class, the leader goes over a timeline of symbols and discusses what will happen.
After a 30-minute program, the kids do crafts and activities, “which gives the parents some networking time,” Boynton said.
The events offer a fun and educational activity for the kids, Krutchik said, but also enrich the lives of the parents by helping them meet others who face similar issues and by making them feel included.
“A lot of our families with kids with special needs feel like they can’t take advantage of what’s out there, because they might be afraid their child will disrupt story time,” Krutchik said. “The library offering story time designed to help kids with these difficulties is a huge benefit from a social standpoint.”
The next Sensory Story Time is scheduled for Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m., with the same program being repeated Nov. 21. The library will not host one in December, but will resume in January on the third Thursday of each month.
The staff has been encouraged by the reaction so far and hopes that more families find out about the new offering.
“We want to make everyone happy the best we can,” Keaney said. “Everyone is always welcome at the library.”