My daughter has autism. At the library, she found words and joy.
Most people think the library is fusty, antiquated, unnecessary. For Erin, this place is magical.
Books, bookstores, and libraries have been an endangered species for some time now. As more and more people spend their lives online, the need for a physical space to house and browse bookshelves has been called into question. However, there remains a segment of the population for whom this online "nether world" does not translate, and for whom "logging on" will never compare to "walking in" to a building filled not only with books — but with people who love them. My daughter, Erin, 12, is one of them.
Unlike many girls her age, Erin, who has an autistic spectrum disorder, does not have a phone, an email address, a Facebook page, or an Instagram account. To communicate with her, you pretty much have to be standing right in front of her and even then demand that she look you in the eye — a request which may or may not be followed depending on her mood and the person making the ask.
There are a magical few, however, who readily command her attention and sustain her eye contact. For several years now, the staff of our local library have not only welcomed Erin — and her service dog, a black Lab named Pablo — but engaged her in a continuous conversation.
Erin has always loved books: the way they look and feel, the pictures, the pages, the words. She is drawn to their physicality — generally the bigger and heavier the better. They are her constant companions — she is never without a book or three tucked under her arm or into bed beside her. While language came late and communication still poses its challenges, Erin, ironically, feels most at home in a space which reveres and celebrates words. She taught herself to read by memorizing what words look like. She learned that words together combine to tell a story and it is in these stories that she has found a medium that explains and enhances her experience of the world — and the passage of time itself.
Erin marks the calendar year through her books: books about reindeer and snowmen, hearts and Valentines, shamrocks and spring, books about Easter eggs and the Fourth of July, sandcastles and fireflies, books about back-to-school and falling leaves, apple and pumpkin picking, jack-o-lanterns, turkeys and giving thanks. She experiences and expresses unparalleled joy upon discovering the Christmas books once again.
To her delight and amazement, at the library Erin has found a group of kindred spirits who gauge and celebrate the seasons in much the same way. She marvels at the topical display of shiny hard-covered books as she enters the children's reading room. And she, and I, appreciate beyond measure that in this sacred space she has found a few individuals who are not only as assiduous about categorizing, locating and loving books as she, but are so very patient and kind. Erin is not the most silent of library visitors. As she bounces up and down the aisles happily greeting all who cross her path be they preschoolers or Peter Rabbit, and I implore her to keep her voice down, the librarians say nothing but: "What can I help you find?"
On a recent visit Erin asked the librarian if she could locate "the nursery book about the pie" Before I could offer a few more specifics, the woman immediately turned to her computer, typed a few words and began to sing: "Ahh yes, Erin, sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds…I know that one…let's see — and here it is…" And without saying another word the two of them disappeared behind a book case only to return moments later with the book — which, indeed, had a picture of a pie and a smattering of blackbirds on its cover.
On our next visit it was a "blue dictionary" she was after. Undoubtedly she had spied one in her classroom or school library which she was not allowed to take home. Upon announcing that she would like a "blue dictionary," the librarian did not roll her eyes or tell her that sounded like a stretch as I might in an impatient moment, but instead replied, "Hmm, let's take a look over here," and led her and Pablo off to the resource room from which she returned holding a sizeable dictionary — emblazoned with a spine of royal blue.
The library serves as a place where one must interact if only with a few words and engage with the world and those in it. For Erin it offers an invaluable exercise in communication. In the beginning, the tangible exchange of a book from one hand to another, was very hard for her because she does not like to let go of her books, even for the time it takes them to be scanned. Yet over time she learned to wait and to trust that the librarian would give her back the book. And as her familiarity with this space has grown so has her language. Every trip offers a unique opportunity to practice how to say hello and to ask how are you and have you seen the Big Red Barn, and yes, it is a wonderful book, and thank you for finding it for me. And good-bye library — see you next time.