The New Orleans Public Library and TrainingGrounds are teaming up to bring a free play center to New Orleans East.
Library's Sensory Storytime Series Is 'A Shining Example of Neurodiversity Inclusion'
Michel Harris’ son, Matthew, is nonverbal and has sensory needs. So, when Michel heard the New Orleans Public Library offered programming for neurodivergent children, she was excited to find something accessible they could do together.
The Harris family lives in Chicago but considers New Orleans a second home. Every year, the family spends a few months here for work, including this past summer. When they’re in town, Michel and her husband regularly bring Matthew to the Community Book Center, which is where she heard about Sensory Storytime, a four-week series hosted at Nora Navra Library.
“The woman who runs the book center knows about Matthew’s needs, and when we were there one day, she told me about the program,” Michel said. “We were immediately very excited, because it can be hard to find something to do that we know will be comfortable for Matthew, particularly when we’re traveling.”
The series was developed by the Library’s early literacy programming team and Fish in a Tree, New Orleans-based community center that focuses on serving neurodivergent populations. Bridgette Hamstead, Fish in a Tree’s founder and executive director, said her organization’s partnership with the Library is “rooted in a mutual commitment to neurodiversity.”
Through initiatives like Sensory Storytime, Bridgette said the two organizations are striving to create neuro-inclusive spaces that empower and support neurodivergent children and their families.
“As partners, the New Orleans Public Library and Fish in a Tree are dedicated to the well-being of neurodivergent children and families. Together, we are unwavering in our commitment to providing neuro-inclusive experiences that make a positive impact on our community,” she said.
Bridgette called the Sensory Storytime series “a shining example of neurodiversity inclusion in action.”
“It’s heartwarming to see libraries offering services like this,” she said. “Sensory Storytimes are a bridge to understanding and acceptance for neurodivergent children. They demonstrate the Library’s dedication to being a community hub that serves everyone, regardless of their neuro-type, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”
Michel and Matthew attended three of the four sessions, only missing the last one because they had to return to Chicago.
“We loved it, and I wish we could have done all four,” Michel said. “Programs like this are very valuable, and unfortunately, they are few and far between, so we were very grateful for the opportunity.”
Each storytime featured picture books about accepting our differences and understanding neurodivergent needs. The program also featured sensory kits for each attendee stocked with fidget toys, noise-reducing earmuffs, weighted lap pads, sunglasses, and communication cards.
More sensory accommodations were strategically places around the room – including fuzzy rugs for the children to sit or lay on, pillows, and activities for them to play with.
The program was designed for children developmentally aged 2-5 years old. Matthew is 7, making him a few years younger than the other kids in the group, but Michel said this wasn’t an issue for their family.
“He relates better with younger children, so this was actually perfect for us. He may not have listened to the story much because of his short attention space, but he loved all of the sensory things that were there, especially the rugs,” she said.
Overall, the program made the Harris family feel welcome and comfortable being in the Library, because she knew they were conscious and caring of her son’s needs.
“It made me feel, as far as the Library goes in general, if they’re thoughtful and empathetic enough for families of children like Matthew to go out of their way to host this program, that this is probably a safe space for us to be in, outside just this event,” she said. “Matthew is almost 8, and of course we want him to be in sports and music lessons and all these other things, but it’s very hard to find programs that want to deal with children like him. So, it really does mean a lot that the Library is offering this type of service.”
The Friends of the New Orleans Public Library sponsored this series, with support from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. Shannan Cvitanovic, executive director of the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, said this was the outcome they hoped for.
“It was more than a storytime – it was time for families to come together in community with other families who understand their particular challenges,” she said. “We started this program to tell parents that their entire families are welcome here, and that we are more than happy to make accommodations that give everyone access to the Library.”
Attending Sensory Storytime was the first interaction the Harris family had with the New Orleans Public Library, but she said it will not be their last.
“We will definitely plan on doing activities at the Library and spending time there when we come back to New Orleans, versus going to the children’s museum or the zoo, or something like that. We will absolutely be using the Library as a source of entertainment for Matthew, and I don’t know if we would have thought of doing that if we hadn’t been connected with this program,” she said.
Early literacy librarian Shunequika Gilmore initiated and planned this summer’s Sensory Storytime after seeing a need for more accessible programming.
“I wanted to create a comfortable and welcoming environment at the library for all kids and their families, especially those who are neurodivergent,” Shunequika said. “I loved seeing the families using the sensory kits and the kids interacting with each other. Seeing this program in action made me very happy and eager to see how we, as a Library, can do more for our patrons.”
For Michel, simply knowing her family is welcome at the Library was huge.
“Just being in an environment where the adults leading the program weren’t trying to have too much control – they were letting the kids do their own thing, they just let them be themselves and settle into whatever was comfortable for them,” she said. “That has a bigger impact than people realize, I think. Knowing that we weren’t going to be disturbing the other children or parents helped us feel more welcome, which we can’t always say for other spaces.”
Shunequika and the early literacy programming team are planning to implement more accessible programs, starting with Sensory Play Saturdays in November. The series kicks off Nov. 4, from 2-4 p.m. at Nora Navra Library (1902 St. Bernard Ave.). Space is limited to 10 participants and registration is required.