Utah librarian starts one-of-a-kind program for teens with autism

Utah librarian starts one-of-a-kind program for teens with autism

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WEST JORDAN — Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, senior librarian with Salt Lake County Library Services, is reaching out to a segment of the special-needs population that is often overlooked: older youths and teens with autism.

Michelle Murphy with Utah Parent Center, an information resource for parents with children with disabilities, said that there is a “big need in Utah” for programs for this group and that the center receives many calls from parents asking for services.

Rogers-Whitehead saw the need and wanted to offer a program specifically for teens with autism. Using her experience from a successful sensory story time for young children with autism, she created Schoolage Sensory Fun, a free activity group designed to help promote literacy in older kids and teens with special needs.

In addition to encouraging literacy, Schoolage Sensory Fun focuses on teamwork and transitions, skills that are difficult for this age group. At each session three activity stations are set up, based on a specific theme, and the youths have to be able to stop what they are doing at one station and move to the next.


In February, the group had a winter theme and examined the structure of snowflakes under microscopes and learned from various books how snowflakes form. Some children were so fascinated by the activities that they were encouraged to take some books home to learn more. Rogers-Whitehead said, “Encouraging literacy through activities can be a subtle way to promote reading, but it has high impact.”

Rogers-Whitehead has found that what works for one child may not work for others and young kids and teens have different needs, which is why she created separate story times. She uses four tips to guide the development of her programs. These are also useful for parents of teens with special needs.

  1. Be subtle. Encourage reading by finding books on subjects that your teen is interested in.
  2. Be an example. Let your teen see you reading or point out books family or friends have enjoyed. This often works better than simply telling your teen you enjoyed a book.
  3. Be creative. Think outside the book and encourage reading through games, activities, crafts and technology.
  4. Be patient. Don’t place unrealistic expectations on your teen or expect him to read on the same level as his peers. Those with special needs go at their own pace.

The response to Schoolage Sensory Fun has been very positive. Chris Kamolwsky, a long-time volunteer for the library’s special needs programs, said, “I like this program because no one is judging anyone or placing unnecessary expectations on behavior or performance.”

Rogers-Whitehead is very excited about this new program and hopes it will inspire other programs like it. She said one of her favorite moments during Schoolage Sensory Fun has been when Tyson, a regular attendee who is nonverbal, included a picture of a library in his communication tablet (a collection of pictures that Tyson points to in order to communicate). Coming to the library is now part of his regular routine.

April is Autism Awareness Month.

Join Carrie Rogers-Whitehead and the Schoolage Sensory Fun program for a special event on Saturday, April 27, at 10:30 a.m. at Kearns Library, 5350 S. 4220 West, Kearns, Utah. A local nonprofit group known as H.E.R.O.I.C Inc., a troupe of performers who dress as superheroes, will attend to work with the kids in some fun activities.

For more information on the regular Schoolage Sensory Fun program, visit the Kearns Library website.

A few more helpful websites on autism and programs for children and teens with special needs include:

About the Author: Teri Harman -----------------------------Teri Harman, author and book enthusiast, writes a biweekly column for ksl.com and also contributes book-related segments to Studio 5. Her debut novel, "Blood Moon," comes out June 22, 2013. Find her online at teriharman.com.


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