Ask An Agent: How to deal with behavior issues from ASD teens?

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Question: I have about six Teen Advisors who help to run monthly programs. They like to do things in stations that each of them runs, and the participants work together in small groups (of three typically). I have an increasing number of kids with Autism or Asberger’s trying to attend these programs. The first issue I have is with one teen who does not follow our Teen Code of Conduct. To me his behavior is just attention seeking and is not part of a disability. He talks when it is essential for everyone to be quiet even though he is told multiple times to please be quiet. He puts his chair upside down when people are playing a game like musical chairs and has to be asked multiple times to put it right side up. He walked over to one of our games, picked up a game piece, slammed it on a table for no reason, and broke it. We have asked him to take a year long break from teen programs. He already had a six month break in the past from worse behaviors. He obviously requires direct supervision, which goes outside of what we are offering when the kids are scattered in small groups around the room.

Another youth we have does not speak around new people and requires prompting to take his turn at gaming. At our last event he inexplicably wanted to keep his head down for a half an hour and be left alone. I finally got him to stop moving away from me and he nodded when I asked if he was just tired. With this type of anti-social behavior going on, I have asked that he sit out of the small group events that require a lot of teamwork and participate at gaming where he can be prompted and does not have to talk. I have so many Advisors running these programs that there are none left over to say buddy him up with on a team.

Then, there is another teen who often chooses new games to play, but does not listen to what anyone else is doing and thus, is random during his turn. He has verbal outbursts at times and does like to stim. with game pieces. I have asked him not to pick up game pieces unless it is part of a game, and am going to ask that he bring a safe object that he can play with so our $50 games do not get destroyed. Again, I cannot be in a group to prompt him constantly, and in a team of three it becomes a disadvantage if one person is truly not contributing. If there are four teens in a group it is better, but we cannot always swing that. I have him volunteering with me prior to our gaming events so he can learn to follow instructions and we can build a relationship.

At one point I tried allowing parents and social workers to attend events and my teen participation dropped. The teens did not like adults being present and intervening during the programs. Someone in our community used to try to run a support group for parents of kids on the spectrum and she stopped because it was not well attended. I do not currently have the resources to run special programming for these kids.

What on earth are other libraries doing? I cannot find a library with a population comparable to mine to ask about this (we have about 15,000 library card holders and get about 20 teens at programs). I found a library with a dedicated YA library within it, and they have an “underused” repeating program for teens on the spectrum where parents are welcome to network while the event is going on.

Again, I have a Teen Code of Conduct and all of these behaviors go against it…one rule is having to participate as the teens who sit off to the side often get into trouble. Help.

Jenni (South San Francisco Public Library) says:
Yikes – this is a toughie!  YALSA has an e-learning page where they catalog all of their older webinars, and I’d recommend listening to “Welcoming Spaces: Serving Patrons with ASD,” which is about half way down this page: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/yalsamemonly/webinars/webinars.

The most important take-away from this webinar, for me, was the importance of establishing expectations for the patrons and enforcing them.  Obviously there are some behaviors that patrons with disabilities will display that neurotypical patrons will not, and as long as they do not disturb/disrupt anyone else, those types of behaviors (soft humming, flapping hands, etc.) are fine.  If the patrons begin damaging property or preventing others from enjoying the program, it makes sense to ask them to leave for a certain period of time.  In the cases you mentioned it might be helpful to send home a note describing the behavior expectations so that parents/guardians are aware of the reasons behind their teen being asked to leave the program.
You could purchase a couple of fidgets to keep in the library so that Teen #3 would have something to fidget with when he needs something in his hands.  You might be able to work things out with Teen #2 that he could be in the room or near the game, but not participate if he is tired or doesn’t feel like interacting that day.  As for the first teen you mentioned, if he doesn’t have an assistant/buddy in the room to help him control his behavior, it sounds like he’ll need to sit out of these programs for a while.  It is not wise or necessary for you to be present as a personal assistant for each of these patrons, since you have many others under your care as well, and if they cannot participate without assistance, then they will need to either bring an assistant or try again another day.
Another possibility would be to work with your teen advisors to create an activity that is ASD-friendly, perhaps something like a movie night or an event they could do as a large group instead of in small stations.

 

Nikki (Cleveland Bradley County Public Library) says:
I struggle with this issue as well and it’s hard to find a balance between the individual attention some of the teens require and overseeing the entire program. I have kids all across the spectrum and for the most part, I go for a one-on-one conversation first  and when individual intervention fails it becomes a whole family discussion and we have to formally talk to parents and send letters and that’s just no fun. It’s super sensitive and while I don’t want to alienate the teens who have special needs, it’s also completely unacceptable to break the code of conduct or disrespect the library space.

After a summer of misery and feeling very overwhelmed with very similar issues,  I sought professional advice and asked a friend who is both a special education teacher and the mother of a child with special needs to volunteer at a few programs and give some insight. Ultimately,  it is my responsibility to plan and be willing to modify programs in such a way that teens of all abilities can participate and to foster sensitivity and respect among the kids who attend the program but it isn’t up to me or the other participants to endure disrespect, abuse, or disruption at the hands of those who will not follow directions. It has helped me to get to develop a relationship with the parents of the kids who attend regularly in order to be able to have candid conversations about behavior issues, but sometimes additional action is unavoidable.  Parental intervention and banning are a last resort, but I feel that you are handling this situation well and appropriately.

 

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