Karen Muckenfuss

Eckhart Public Library programming specialist Karen Muckenfuss sits in a beach tent and displays a selection of fidgets that she incorporates into her sensory-friendly storytime sessions for children with autism or sensory issues.

AUBURN — The Eckhart Public Library has launched a program that is tailored to meet the needs of preschoolers with autism or children who have sensory issues.

Sensory-friendly storytime was launched in October and plans call for offering it once a month, to be resumed in the new year. Programming specialist Karen Muckenfuss leads the storytime sessions and brings her 25 years of experience working as an elementary teacher in DeKalb Central and Central Noble schools.

“An idea was presented to us through a programming meeting about possibly starting a sensory-friendly storytime that would provide access to those children — preschoolers (ages 2-5) at this time — who maybe have sensory issues or are on the autism spectrum, and thought that their comfort level and their parents’ comfort level might not be up to just a regular storytime that we offer,” Muckenfuss explained.

“We were looking for an opportunity for those families to have a storytime that they didn’t feel like they were different — that they could participate according to their child’s needs and their child’s actions.

“Libraries are all about providing access to their patrons, and so we recognized this as a group of patrons that maybe avoided coming to the library out of being not sure how the community would respond to them, or afraid of what might happen. We wanted to give them a chance to participate in what the library offers in a more relaxed, comfortable environment for them.”

Sensory-friendly storytime is not that much different than the library’s regular storytime, although it offers an environment that is free from a lot of stimulus, Muckenfuss explained. Sensory-friendly storytimes take place in the library’s assembly room, rather than the Secret Garden area in the children’s department where other storytimes are hosted.

“The Secret Garden is a smaller room. It also has the beautiful paintings on the wall. They can be distracting for kids that have sensory issues, just because there’s a lot going on in those pictures … There are toys and things in the Secret Garden that would be distracting too,” Muckenfuss explained.

For sensory-friendly storytime in the assembly room, chairs and tables are set off to the side to allow for a large open space.

“That allows us plenty of room to spread out so we’re not sitting so close to one another, which is good during COVID time, but is also good in sensory-friendly kind of environment, to feel like you have some space around you that if you don’t feel like sitting, you can stand up, you can move around and there’s room to do that,” Muckenfuss said.

The program also incorporates the use of a beach tent that is set up in the back of the room, along with some sensory fidgets that are soothing and calming and give children something to do with their hands.

“If at any time during the storytime it gets overwhelming and you need a break, you can come back here and kind of still see what’s going on but you have some space of your own,” Muckenfuss said.

“We also try to keep the lights down lower than normal … to make it a little bit more soothing. I have background music that’s very calming too, before we begin. It kind of welcomes them in here. The idea is to make it a safe space, a calm space, a relaxing space, for both the parents and the children.”

Muckenfuss uses interactive books that children can press and shake and “do something instead of just looking,” she said. Each family has its own copy.

“The idea is to make it interactive so they’re not just sitting still,” Muckenfuss added.

The storytime lasts about 30 minutes, but Muckenfuss provides activities in which children can participate after the session if they wish to stay for another half-hour or so.

“Our hope is that parents would kind of get to know each other and form some relationships with each other, because, obviously, we all need support,” Muckenfuss said.

Attendance at sensory-friendly storytimes is capped at 15 children and one parent or guardian per child.

“We have not met that expectation yet … We’re trying to get the word out … you do not need to have an Eckhart Public Library card or an Evergreen library card to participate. Anybody can participate,” Muckenfuss said.

There will be no sensory-friendly storytime in December, but sessions will resume in 2022.

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