Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum in an Academic Library

I don’t want to give away too much information on this situation, so I’m changing a few of the things to protect privacy, but here goes…

I was facilitating an information literacy session for a class–a typical first-year gen ed course. My usual plan incorporates a hands-on activity (research worksheet) where students, working in groups, find different information sources on their class topic (books, ebooks, streaming films, newspapers/magazines, scholarly articles). After searching, each group shares how they found the information with their classmates. In total, the session incorporates multiple learning styles (visual, aural, and tactile).

Instead of me doing the talking, I outline what we want to accomplish during the session and point out a couple of things on the library website. Then I let the groups start their work. I walk around and visit each group to make sure they are headed in the right direction.

A group was struggling in interactions with one of their classmates.

  • A student kept asking me question after question. I love when students ask questions in info lit sessions (yes!), but the student was bogged down in technical minutiae — missing the forest through the trees — that sort of thing.
  • The student fixated on answering each question on the research worksheet and was taking very little input from other group members.
  • The student argued with the other students about the answers. The student was concerned that there were multiple avenues for determining a “correct” answer.
  • The student was verbally critical in a raised voice when help was offered to the group (e.g., “Why didn’t you show us how to do this AT THE BEGINNING!”).
  • The student also seemed sidetracked with the settings on the library laptops that were being used by the students.

I realized I *likely* (granted, just an inference on my part) had a student on the autism spectrum in class. No formal indication was communicated to me–nor should it–that is up to the individual. In typical “pro” librarian style, you just need to roll with the situation and be flexible.

My Reaction
As this was happening, I made a mental note to remain calm and supportive. The last thing I want to do to any student is be dismissive, curt, or yell back.

I focused on providing a little more in-depth step-by-step instruction with the student (e.g., “Let’s take a look at your question and see what we can find out.”). However, I did feel like I got behind schedule and the rest of the students were waiting for us to catch up–some were noticeably annoyed. It’s a difficult balancing act that we will see more of at the higher ed level.

I wish I could have facilitated the session more smoothly. I’d be interested in hearing tips and techniques from other librarians. 

Things to Keep in Mind
Individuals on the autism spectrum are all unique, but there are a few general tips to be aware of in regards to the library and information literacy:

  1. Meeting in a new location (like the Library Classroom) may disrupt the student’s routine.
  2. My “there are many ways to find the answer” research worksheet may not be structured enough for someone on the autism spectrum. I could have supplemented it by outlining a step-by-step research strategy on the chalkboard/whiteboard.
  3. Technology in the Library Classroom could be distracting or contribute to sensory overload (I typically use both laptops and touchscreen technology with students).
  4. I usually require students to work in pairs or groups for the research worksheet activity, but should recognize that if a student wishes to work independently, that is an OK option.
  5. Emphasize additional services:
    • Appointments to meet with a librarian if that’s what the student is interested in.
    • Online tutorials and the library’s online chat box that can be accessed from the comfort of home/dorm room, etc… if a face-to-face interaction is not preferred.
    • Quiet spaces are available in the library if that’s the type of space that the student is interested in utilizing.
  6. As a librarian/higher ed professional, I will readily admit to not having a lot of training in the area of working with students on the autism spectrum. Contact your university’s office of disability services to see what further support the library could provide, or to arrange for staff training opportunities.
  7. Remember, *all* students learn differently. Keep in mind the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Further Reading


A Meandering Post About Starting My 2nd Masters

Haven’t posted in awhile…time, time, time…you’ll see why below…

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When I started my first academic librarian job in 2003, it was stressed upon me that I needed a 2nd master’s degree. Then that requirement was mysteriously dropped at my workplace. I happily slummed it for the next decade-plus with “just” my MLS (my high school-educated parents were damn proud of that master’s degree…even more so than me).

Unlike some people with a detailed career plan, I’ve meandered from here to there–mostly focused on the position and location.

I’ve never worked at a research institution, nor have I been an in-depth subject expert. My bachelor’s degree is in history, but that was an afterthought and I don’t feel any strong connection to it. So for my interests (YMMV!), the 2nd master’s didn’t matter as much. Never had any academic librarians question it career-wise, but I’m sure I avoided any institutions where a 2nd master’s was required.

However, in the back of my mind, I thought: If the right opportunity would present itself, I would go back and earn that 2nd master’s. But I had a couple of big stipulations:

  1. The degree needed to be in a field that interested me.
  2. I wasn’t willing to pay tuition or take out loans.

For the people who say “you can’t put a price on educationUmm, yes, you can. It’s called your tuition bill. Despite working in higher ed, I had never worked at an institution that offered tuition remission to employees for grad programs.

Now at my current workplace, I have that opportunity and I’m taking advantage of it. I’ve started a master of education in adult and continuing education.

Since becoming a librarian, my specialty has been in information literacy: How do students seek and evaluate information? How do students learn? What barriers prevent them from learning? I also watch students make that transition from high school to college (and become adults in the process)–not to mention non-traditional students with their diverse needs. All of this is a good match for adult and continuing education.

So I’m back in class…formally. First time since 2002 when there was no Facebook, YouTube, or smartphones. I will admit to being intimidated. Do students still take notes on paper? Do I bring my iPad? The answer is yes to both questions.

This semester, I’m taking 2 classes: “Foundations of Adult Education” and “Teaching and Learning Across the Lifespan.” Because this is an education program, the focus has been PEOPLE, PEOPLE, PEOPLE, whereas I felt my MLS focused on CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT. In my mind, librarianship should ultimately be the merger of the two.

Thinking back, as someone who has always been a public-facing librarian, I wish I had had more content on educational theory, instructional techniques, group dynamics, and organizational leadership–something that went beyond the two basic classes I took in library school: “Education of Information Users” and “Management and Administration of Libraries.” Although I’ve always kept up professional development-wise: reading articles, attending & presenting at conferences, participating in webinars – I feel like my M.Ed. program is helping to fill in some holes I had. And the course materials? I knew it was good stuff when I saw “information literacy” being bandied about early on in one of my textbooks. Music to my ears!

So I’m going to see if they can teach an old dog new tricks (research says yes, by the way :) ). As a result, I may not be posting here as regularly as I had in the past. Time to hit the books!

New Year, New Job

Haven’t blogged much lately. Still settling into my new job at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Hopefully after things settle down a little bit, I can get back to writing.

For now, I’m enjoying the new job. Not a huge move for me…luckily (I vow for no more cross-country moves!). After three good years at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, I moved 100 miles south where it’s actually a few degrees warmer! My 82 mile daily round-trip commute is gone. It’s been replaced with a 16 mile round-trip commute and I’m enjoying the extra free (and sleep) time I get!

A welcome gift from my new co-workers at Carroll University.

A welcome gift from my new co-workers at Carroll University.

The new job is also broadening my skills. Whether you’re a new librarian or a seasoned veteran (at this point–after 11 years as a librarian I guess I fall into the latter group), it’s always important to adapt and acquire new skills.

I’m supervising reference and information literacy, managing the curriculum materials collection, and serve as the library’s liaison/collection manager for the education department, psychology department, and diversity services. I like being back at a smaller library/institution (3,000 students) where the job brings a lot of variety and you really get to know the faculty, staff, and students.

I get to order all of the "fun" stuff for the Curriculum Materials Collection.

I get to order all of the “fun” stuff for the Curriculum Materials Collection.

So that’s my January. Lots to learn! Hope your new year is off to a good start!

Morning at Carroll University - Wisconsin's oldest four-year institution, established in 1846.

Morning at Carroll University – Wisconsin’s oldest four-year institution, established in 1846.

On Being a Generalist Librarian & Not Having a 2nd Master’s

They let you work in an academic library without a second master's

After I started my first professional librarian position at an academic library in 2003, I had every good intention of getting my second master’s degree…in something.

In fact, it was required if I wanted to stay employed at my job. But then there was a lawsuit (or something to that effect) and the university – which had hired art professors with a terminal MFA and social work professors with a terminal MSW – found out that they were holding librarians to a higher standard: MLS + an additional graduate degree. The requirement was promptly dropped. So with that, coupled with no financial support from my institution to actually earn the degree, I let the second master’s slide off my radar.

You see, I’m one of those librarians who went directly from bachelor’s degree to MLS and then right to work.

And for librarians who told me a second master’s degree was essential (ABSOLUTELY essential!) to be an academic librarian? Well, I’ve never had any problems with just my MLS and I’ve been employed at four different academic libraries. Is it required at some institutions? Sure. Is it helpful for your resume? Of course it is. And for the jobs where it is required–say a subject specialist: Law Librarian, Asian Studies Librarian, etc… well, those jobs never interested me in the first place.

Why yes I am the expert

I’m a generalist librarian. A jack-of-all-trades. I know a little bit about a lot…and I’m completely OK with that. My focus has always been on reference and instruction. I love not knowing what I might get asked next. In a two-hour shift at the Reference Desk, it could be anything from Census records to British literature. Last week, I had a chat reference question about “natal homing in migratory fish.” And you know what? Even though science is not my strong suit, I did OK. Maybe I should try out for Jeopardy!.

I look at the information literacy sessions I have scheduled this semester: music, education, communication, political science, history, social work, psychology, biology, environmental science, English composition, Spanish. I don’t fear the range of subject areas. I embrace it.

That’s what I love about being a generalist librarian: the variety. From reference, to information literacy, embedding in online courses, working with non-traditional students, handling the library’s social media activities, participating in special studies with assessment and space planning: There’s always something different to do.

This has been my path. I’m not discounting subject specialists at all: We need those! We need librarians who are passionate about their subject speciality. And there’s definitely a need for subject specialists at research institutions. However, my experience has primarily been at undergraduate institutions where you wear a lot of different hats.

I no longer feel bad about not earning that second master’s degree. Priorities shift and you begin to assess what’s really important to you personally and professionally. I also like having my student loans all paid off. At this point, for me, it’s not financially prudent to sink money and time to earn an additional degree that likely wouldn’t make a hill of beans difference in the long run. Unlike others, I can put a price on education.

And then I think back to my original plan: What would my additional grad degree have been in? Certainly not history (which is my BA). Maybe an MBA or a master’s in educational technology would be helpful? Recently, a professor stopped me and asked, “So when are you getting your PhD?” I just laughed. A PhD to be a generalist librarian? No thanks.

“I Didn’t Know I Could Use the Library!” Meeting the Needs of Students Online

I’m at WILU 2013 – Workshop for Instruction in Library Use – a Canadian information literacy conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick: a great opportunity to network with librarians north of the border – or “south of the border” to them! I presented a session about implementing library services to online students:

“I Didn’t Know I Could Use the Library!” Meeting the Needs of Students Online

Session Description:
What do you do with students you rarely see in the library? University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has a growing online student population. Reaching these students can be challenging. Many still view the library as just a brick-and-mortar building, and not an online 24/7 resource. Librarians conducted an assessment of online students to investigate their needs. This session will focus on the assessment results and the information literacy outreach plan put into place. It will highlight several initiatives, including the embedded librarian program, faculty-librarian collaboration, marketing efforts, and learning tools geared towards online students. Based on feedback from students and faculty, an increase in reference questions, as well as high usage statistics from librarian-created tutorials and discussion boards, the outreach plan is working. Come and learn about these best practices for online learners and share your ideas, as well.

Here are some of the assessment tools, resources, guides, and tips mentioned in my presentation:

Get ‘Embed’ with Your Librarian: Meeting the Needs of Students Online

The online market is a growing field for higher education. How does the academic library fit into all of this? My colleague–Anne Kasuboski–and I gave a presentation at the 2013 Wisconsin Association of Academic Librarians conference, held at Elkhart Lake.

We discuss how our library at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay surveyed our online students and faculty and developed an outreach plan to meet their needs.

It covers our Embedded Librarian program, which started out as a pilot program and expanded successfully across online courses, in addition to some face-to-face courses. It also includes information on the learning tools that we gear towards online learners, such as LibGuides, tutorials, and resources like NoodleTools.

If you have questions about being an “embedded librarian”–let me know! I would like to hear what other librarians are doing with programs such as these.

Bringing the Annotated Bibliography into the 21st Century: Using a LibGuide as an Assignment

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I’m a LibGuides aficionado. Students love them. Professors love them. It’s a great way to package only the most relevant library and research-related content and tie it directly to an assignment or course. Professors can then link to it from their course management system (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, D2L) in an environment where students spend most of their online “academic” time anyway.

This semester I taught a course for my institution’s Information and Computing Sciences department: Information Science 410: Advanced Information Problems. This course takes a problem/solution oriented approach to a complicated issue – in our case, gun control – and examines the maze of information related to it.

As a librarian, I thought the best thing to do was to put together a LibGuide to direct students to good information. But then I thought, “Hey, these are information science students…let’s put them to work!” Because the course spends time on evaluating information, a course LibGuide project was a perfect opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills.

Using our gun control issue, students worked in teams to evaluate the best library databases for the topic, and gathered relevant books, websites, government information, and video. I taught them how to use the LibGuides system and gave an overview of “model” LibGuides. Each group was provided with a LibGuide shell. Students had “collaborator” access to the LibGuide allowing them to add content and edit the design.

After each group submitted their LibGuide, I had a panel of library staff evaluate them. We selected the “winning” LibGuide to be published on our site. The end result?: a non-biased and informational guide on a popular and controversial issue that can be used by all students on our campus to gather academic information.

The project gives students practice at evaluating and curating information. The LibGuide, combined with a written assignment where students explain their information selection brings the time honored annotated bibliography into the 21st century. It’s something that academic librarians should market to professors as an assignment that demonstrates critical thinking and evaluative skills.

LibGuide link: