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Mar 12 / Philip Zupon

Academic Libraries and College Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder: How Can We Help?

It is no new news that there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of individuals diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) here in the United States. As recent as last year, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report stating that 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. At the same time, colleges and universities across the United States are seeing a major increase in the enrollment rate of students with ASD, particularly individuals with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (Asperger’s). While there are currently no statistics with exact numbers pertaining to the increase in the enrollment rate of college students with ASD, disability service providers in a number of colleges and universities are reporting an increase in the number of students with ASD—particularly Asperger’s—requesting accommodations for their disability.

Going to college can be a major life changing experience for anyone. However, for individuals with Asperger’s and other forms of ASD, making the transition from high-school to college can be especially challenging because of some of the unique difficulties that individuals with ASD face particularly in the areas of communication and socialization skills. Many individuals with ASD also have different kinds of visual, auditory, and physical sensory problems. Unless they receive therapy to help them overcome their sensory problems, these sensory problems can present them with as much of a challenge as their social skills difficulties; which makes adjusting to any kind of new social, living, or work environment nothing short of daunting. The college campus and classroom environment is no exception.


I can say this from a first-hand experience because I myself am an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome who has just graduated from Wayne State University with my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. Because I was fortunate enough to receive a diagnosis at an early age, I was able to receive many of the necessary therapies needed to help me overcome a number of my different sensory and communication problems during my childhood. By the time I reached college, I no longer struggled with any serious sensory challenges. However, I still struggled with some difficulties in the areas of social skills. Although I am a very outgoing individual, there were times when learning to adapt to the college campus and classroom environments could be a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, I knew that there was a place at every college that I attended where I could always go in between classes to relieve myself of any social, emotional, or academic stress that I might be experiencing. For me, that place was the college library; also known as the academic library. Within the four walls of the academic library, I found a world that was generally quieter and less stressful than the rest of the campus environment. Moreover, the library was full of books and other media on almost all of my favorite interests. I found that there was nothing more soothing and intellectually stimulating in the middle of a busy, stressful college semester than to read through a book on my favorite classical-music composer or architect. If that wasn’t enough, the library was staffed by some of the most laid-back, intellectually open-minded, and knowledgeable people on campus; the librarians. If I had a question or needed more information to help with a subject that I might be struggling in, I could always ask the librarian at the reference desk and he or she would patiently help me find the best sources available on the topic that I was trying to learn more about without making me feel stupid in any way. While social interactions with college peers and even professors required me to learn a whole new series of social rules; at the library, all I had to do was be polite, pleasant, and keep my voice down in order to win the respect of my new librarian-acquaintances. This sense of familiarity in a world that was completely new to me served to remind me on a weekly basis that I belonged at college regardless of how difficult it sometimes was for me to fit in anywhere else.

I must admit that I would have never turned to the academic library as my place of sanctuary if it hadn’t been for the fact that my mother took me to the library on a weekly basis as a child and instilled in me a love for reading at an early age. Later on, as a teenager, I continued to visit the library on my own as often as I could to entertain myself by reading about my favorite interests. So by the time I reached college, it was only natural for me to head straight to the library as soon as I set foot on campus. This was not just because I was curious to discover the resources that it might have on my favorite subjects but because the library has been such a mainstay in my life.

As a graduate student pursuing my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science so that I myself could become a librarian, I often wondered how many other college students with Asperger’s Syndrome or other forms of ASD viewed their college library as a sanctuary of quietness and familiarity from all of the confusion and challenges that college life must present to them. Many of my peers with ASD that I have met over my twelve-year span of college life were not blessed with an early exposure to their local library or the love of reading from childhood as I was. Furthermore, many of these same peers—especially those with Asperger’s—were not diagnosed until they were almost adults. Consequently, they were not able to receive all of the therapies that I received during my childhood and teenage years and many of these individuals still struggle with some of the sensory problems that plagued me as a child along with their communication and social skills difficulties. Almost coincidently, because my peers with ASD did not frequent libraries when they were younger, they did not have the opportunity to master their “library etiquette” during their childhood and teenage years as I did. Because I knew my “library etiquette” inside out by the time I reached college, I was able to quickly gain the respect of all of the librarians at every college campus that I attended because they saw me as an eager learner rather than a nuisance. Many of my peers with ASD who struggle just as much with knowing the proper behavior skills expected of patrons in a library setting as they do with other basic social skills might find the academic library to be equally as unwelcoming as the rest of the college campus.

By the time I reached my final year of graduate school, I could no longer simply reflect on how my fellow college students with ASD might view the academic library; the place that had come to be such a critical and integral part of my college experience. As an aspiring librarian, I begin to feel as if it was my duty to play a role in ensuring that students with ASD would have the opportunity to experience their college library in the same pleasant and rewarding manner that I had experienced libraries throughout my life. But how could I do that most effectively? Sure, I could go out of my way and try and give every college student with ASD that I met a good thorough tour of their college library along with a crash course in “library etiquette” prior to the tour. However, I do not recall as a college student meeting new students with ASD on an every-day basis. Of the students with ASD that I did meet, very few of them would have been interested in me giving them a personal tour of their college library even if they had never visited it themselves yet. Nevertheless, if students with ASD are enrolling in colleges and universities across the nation at an ever increasing rate as I mentioned earlier in the article, librarians at the academic libraries of these institutions must be encountering more and more of these students both inside and outside of their libraries on a regular basis. So really, the best way to make academic libraries a welcoming and resourceful environment for students with ASD is to educate the librarians about these students and their unique needs. The question is: how many academic librarians are aware of the existence of students with Asperger’s and other forms of ASD within their institutions and how well equipped do these librarians feel that they are to meet the needs of this unique population of students?

During my final course in library and information science, which was a course on research within the library and information science profession; I had a chance to turn my concern into a research proposal for my final assignment. The purpose of my research proposal was to survey reference and information services librarians at various colleges and universities throughout the state of Michigan. The survey itself consisted of a questionnaire with five open-ended questions followed by nine multiple-choice questions. Both sets of questions ask the survey participants if they have any experience working with students with Asperger’s or other forms of ASD and if they are familiar with the social and communication skills problems that students with ASD may have. Finally, the participants are asked if they feel that they would be able to respond to these students in spite of their social and communication difficulties and provide them with the assistance that they need. Based on the answers provided by the participants of the survey, I hoped to get a good glimpse of how familiar academic librarians are with ASD and in what areas could they be better educated about the difficulties that students with ASD face in an academic library or even a college campus environment.

One of several important components of a research proposal is the literature review. The purpose of the literature review is to give the individual writing the proposal the chance to review any major literature that has been previously written about the topic that the individual wishes to research. A lack of literature on a given topic or proof that the existing literature written on the topic is inadequate provides a great argument for the need for further research on that particular topic. In my literature review, I reviewed all of the literature that I could find on ASD relating to libraries. I discovered that while there have been articles written about how public libraries and school libraries can serve individuals with ASD and articles and even research reports on how academic libraries can serve individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities; there has been no literature at all written about academic libraries and how they can serve individuals with ASD. Hence, if my research proposal is ever carried out, whether it is in Michigan or any other state; my research survey will be the first study ever that attempts to evaluate how well prepared and equipped do academic librarians feel they are to assist students with ASD at their academic libraries.


In the meantime, librarians at academic libraries are left by themselves to try to assist these students as best they can on an individual and daily basis. However, I did not spend four years of going to graduate school to earn my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science so that I could join that profession while leaving all of my life experiences as an individual with Asperger’s behind me, never to be mentioned or revisited again. No, I intend to use my experiences as a former college student and frequent college library patron to help my colleagues in the library and information science profession better understand other individuals with ASD and how to better serve these individuals in spite of their unique needs. So I am going to make the following suggestions as to how academic librarians can better meet the needs of these unique students that they encounter within their libraries whether or not they fully realize that the individual has some form of ASD. These recommendations are based on my personal experience and observations from four years of library and information education, five years of working at three different academic libraries, and almost thirty years of being a regular patron at my local public libraries.

1)      Be patient with any student that appears to have difficulty verbalizing or clarifying what they are asking for or struggles with processing multiple step instructions.

2)      If a student asks you to repeat the answer to an obvious question several times, be willing to repeat it until it is apparent that the student understands your answer.

3)      If a student that you are assisting appears to be too shy to follow your instructions, offer to break down your instructions into simpler steps and offer to personally show them how to find whatever they are requesting.

4)      Do not take it personally if a student asks for help and gives you the impression that they are intimidated by you. In fact, be especially kind and understanding to these students because one compassionate and understanding librarian can often help them overcome whatever phobia they may be experiencing (including the fear that they don’t belong in college).

5)      If a student in your library appears lost and at the same time too afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to walk over to them and nicely ask them if they need any help finding anything.

6)      If a student is engaging in disruptive behavior or behavior that deviates from the established social norms of “library etiquette,” try advising the student in a nice way about acceptable behavior rather than immediately reprimanding them. Only if the student continues to be disruptive to others around him or continues to break important library rules should you begin reprimanding them and reminding them that they will be asked to leave if they do not change their behavior.

7)      If you see a group of students bullying another student because that student is behaving or handling themselves in a manner that is social awkward, do not hesitate to intervene in the situation and tell the students involved in the bullying to stop or leave the library. If you are forced to order the antagonizing students to leave the library, make sure that you tell the student who was the victim that they are welcome to remain in the library and ask them if you can help them with anything.

8)      Make sure that you have at least one or specifically several quiet areas or rooms in your library that students with ASD who have sensory problems can go to in order to study or spend time in an environment that is free of distractions and annoyances. Make sure that these areas of the library are kept free of things that might annoy these students such as flickering fluorescent lights, excessive noise, and strong smells.

9)      If you notice something in your library that could potentially bother a student with ASD who suffers from sensory problems, try to have it fixed or remedied as soon as possible.

While I acknowledge that these suggestions above do not fully cover all scenarios in which academic librarians may assist students with ASD, hopefully they will help lessen some of the challenges that academic librarians assisting these students may find themselves facing. Another wonderful source that librarians should consider consulting is People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): What You Need to Know by the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library (ASCLA) Agencies, a division of the American Library Association (ALA). This recommendation-sheet is one of fifteen online pamphlets that the ASCLA has published on library accessibility for individuals with disabilities and it does a wonderful job of covering other important areas in making libraries more accessible and welcoming for students with ASD. Most importantly, however, we in the academic library field must remember that we are not merely here to assist students with ASD with finding the resources that they need. As with public and school librarians, academic librarians too have the capability to help these students discover themselves, their interests, and their ability to overcome their challenges so that they can excel both as college students and as individuals within our society. I know that I would have never gotten to where I am today without my school libraries, my local public libraries and the academic libraries at all three of the institutions of higher learning that I attended. Together, each of these libraries and their librarians kept me in touch with a world of information resources that never failed to remind me that I could achieve anything that I set my mind to and that with hard work; I could overcome my challenges in life to become a respectable contributing member of our society. We in the academic library field have the opportunity to make the same difference in the lives of other individuals with ASD and other disabilities.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Community Report From the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network: Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) Among Multiple Areas of the United States in 2008 ADDM Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network-2012. Atlanta, Georgia.

VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: college and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1359–1370. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0524-8

Graetz, J., & Spampinato, K. (2008). Asperger’s Syndrome and the Voyage Through High School: Not the Final Frontier. Journal of College Admission (Winter 2008), 19-24.

Zupon, P. (2012). Assisting Students with Asperger’s Syndrome and HFA in an Academic Library. (Unpublished research proposal). Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies. (2010). People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): What You Need to Know Library Accessibility Tip Sheet 6. Retrieved from

Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies. (2013). Library Accessibility–What You Need to Know. Retrieved from