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Chapel Hill Public Library introduces sensory resources to serve neurodiverse community


The Chapel Hill Public Library is open to visitors who can experience its new, inclusive services with the theme “Neurodiversity and Nature” on Friday, March 24, 2023.

In an effort to make the space more inclusive, the Chapel Hill Public Library is launching an initiative that offers nature-themed, sensory-friendly resources to the community. 

The initiative, called "Neurodiversity and Nature," is catered toward children and adults with diverse cognitive needs, including sensory processing differences, dementia and memory loss, ADHD, intellectual or developmental disabilities and autism.  

The library is adding sensory-friendly furniture, nature-themed sensory kits and a garden trail to their space. 

The sensory-friendly furniture, including giant bean bags, hanging chairs, papasan chairs and wobble stools, were added in February, according to a press release from the Town of Chapel Hill. Nature-themed sensory kits for kids will be added in late March and nature-themed sensory kits for adults will be added in April 2023.

The library's initiative was funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as a part of the federal Library Services and Technology Act. 

Laura Brown, experience manager for the library, said the Chapel Hill Public Library also received feedback from the Autism Society of North Carolina while implementing the initiative. 

“Neurodiversity is an asset to our community,” Krystal Black, youth and family outreach coordinator, said in a Town press release. “We took great care in developing the pieces of this initiative, working with community partners in the neurodiverse space. Leveraging our location in Pritchard Park and the success of the Explore More NC initiative, most components will have a nature theme, highlighting the comforting, multi-sensory experiences it provides.”  

Madison Bolls, a senior program officer at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said sensory spaces have become popular for serving neurodiverse people with extra sensory needs. Bolls said sensory spaces help people focus on different types of brain functions.

She said these spaces can have resources, as small as fidget spinners, and objects that light up and make noises to engage the senses. 

“Libraries are really making an effort to serve folks in their communities that come from all types of abilities,” Bolls said.

The Chapel Hill Public Library is also using its location, a 34-acre park, for the sensory trail, according to Brown. 

The trail's development began in November 2022 and will continue into spring 2023 via a partnership with the North Carolina Botanical Garden, according to a press release. 

The adult and children’s sensory kits will have nature-themed coloring books, projectors that display oceans with wave sounds and beach-scented sprays, according to Brown. 

“These kits include multiple components that create relaxation and different sensory experiences,” Brown said.

Black said the library has provided different types of kits, such as book kits and science kits, in order to use the surrounding park and advance environmental education. She said the success of these kits contributed to the creation of the sensory kits. 

In addition to serving neurodiverse people, Bolls said these resources can be used by those recovering from surgeries or strokes.

“We're always looking for ways to be more inclusive at the library and make sure we're bringing in folks from all different kinds of backgrounds and with different interests," Brown said. "One area where we felt like we could do more was with our neurodiverse patrons.” 

The library is also partnering with B3 Coffee, a nonprofit coffee organization that hires neurodiverse employees, to host a monthly book club. 

Black said library workers are receiving additional training from the Autism Society of North Carolina. She said the training is a large part of the process of making the library more inclusive. 

"You never really know how something's going to be received by the community until you've offered it," she said. "Just like we do with everything out here at the library, we'll get feedback from the community to understand how we did and continue to go from there."


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