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Leeds Library and Information Service - outreach support and partnership working

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This award-winning project is a collaboration between Leeds Library and Information Service, the Specialist Teachers Autism Response Service (STARS) team and NHS Leeds Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) Service. It won the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Libraries Change Lives Award 2009.

The project provides:

  • free access to Boardmaker software in 25 libraries across Leeds to promote alternative communication systems for children and young people with autism
  • regular autism awareness training for library staff to promote an autism-friendly culture
  •  a monthly advice session for parents

This case study offers information about the range of services Leeds Library and Information Service partnership offers, advice about setting up similar services in your area and downloadable templates of some of the key documents you will need to get you started.

View a short video about this partnership in Leeds and the provision of Boardmaker software across libraries in Leeds, below.

Across the board: autism support for families

This award-winning project is a collaboration between Leeds Library and Information Service, the Specialist Teachers Autism Response Service (STARS) team and NHS Leeds Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) Service. It won the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Libraries Change Lives Award 2009.

The project aims to benefit children and young people in Leeds, their parents and the professionals who support them by offering free access to Boardmaker software in 25 libraries across Leeds. It is available to anyone visiting the library and has been used by parents living outside the immediate area.

In order to properly support the Boardmaker software service for families within the library, library staff have received autism awareness training from the STARS and SLT teams, as well as training in Boardmaker.

As a result of feedback from parents the project has been expanded to offer monthly drop-in advice sessions for parents of children and young people on the autism spectrum. In addition the library service has increased its stock of books on autism with advice from the STARS team and now offer a comprehensive range for parents of children with autism.

Essential project elements:

1. Purchase of at least one Boardmaker software licence
2. Partnership working with relevant local authority SEN teams
3. Library staff training in autism and use of Boardmaker
4. Evaluation system for gathering user satisfaction and suggestions

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Boardmaker is a drawing program and a graphics database which contains more than 4,500 Picture Communication Symbols™ (PCS) in 44 languages. Through this project Boardmaker has been made available free of charge for use in 25 libraries across Leeds. The library service has also bought the picture addendums so that the number of symbols available from Boardmaker in Leeds libraries is over 11,000.

Picture Communication Systems effectively represent language for individuals of all ages and abilities but they are particularly useful for children and young people on the autism spectrum who can have difficulty in understanding and processing written and verbal language.

Boardmaker can be used to create:

 Visual schedules and social skills stories for children with autism spectrum disorders
 Materials to reinforce common educational, behavioural, and functional living skills
 Books and symbol-supported literacy activities
 Communication boards and device overlays for non-verbal students
 Worksheets and activities for English language learners
 Song and story boards for preschoolers
 Articulation flashcards and fluency cue cards

boardmaker picture 1

boardmaker picture 2

Leeds Central Library has Boardmaker Plus. This has all of the print capabilities of Boardmaker with 11,000 symbols, but also includes interactive elements such as speech, animation and video. These features can be used to create on-screen activities. Boardmaker Plus comes with sample boards and interactive templates to get you started.

Download: Boardmaker booklet

In making Boardmaker available across the Leeds Library Service, the project team were keen to ensure that licences which had been purchased with the Boardmaker software were distributed fairly around the library network. Initially, this meant that the software would be available in around eight sites with seven copies of the software at each site. It was envisaged that groups of parents would access the software together. However, after speaking to parents and families the Project Team revised this plan and worked towards making Boardmaker available across more sites. Parents need access to the software quickly and frequently and don’t want to have to travel too far for it. Symbols are often printed for immediate use, for example, if a child requires a visit to the doctor, symbols are required immediately to prepare for the visit.

Leeds Library and Information Service report produced for Mayer-Johnson to distribute to other library services making enquiries about the product.

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The project originated from a request from one parent for access to the Boardmaker software. Following some research in response to this request, Leeds Library Service felt it appropriate to explore making Boardmaker available to as many parents and relevant professionals as possible across Leeds.

The project manager wanted to ensure that the project succeeded and wanted parents using the library to have access to staff who were both knowledgeable about the software and aware of autism and how important the software might be to parents of children and young people on the autism spectrum. To better understand the needs of families who have autism, staff from the library service arranged to meet autism professionals from the NHS and Education Leeds. This led to a greater understanding of families’ needs and a strong partnership between the three services, which in turn led to the project objectives widening.

Autism awareness training was delivered to library staff by partners via a half-day session for 20 members of staff who then in turn cascaded the training down to others. A further training session on using the software was delivered to staff including a session on why the software is so important for parents of children with autism. Again, this training is cascaded by library staff.

It has sparked an increased awareness of autism amongst library staff and of the challenges it can bring for families trying to successfully communicate with their children. This has resulted in a shifting culture within the Library Service and a commitment to deliver better and more appropriate services for families of children and young people with communication and learning difficulties.

Librarians across the 25 sites now deliver Boardmaker learning sessions to the public.

The ongoing objective is to support families of children with autism spectrum disorders by providing a range of sustainable services and resources in libraries across Leeds. The number of libraries involved was originally 10, it then expanded to 16, and now the software is available in 25 libraries.

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4. Parent Support Groups

“Everything has been driven by the parents, right from the original request. The fact that we added the monthly workshops was because the parents asked for it, and because they were asking questions we as library staff couldn’t answer but knew that partners could.”  Jason Tutin, Area Development Librarian: Learning, Leeds Library and Information Service

Library staff, the STARS team and SLT staff have set up a programme of monthly drop in advice sessions for parents of children with autism. The STARS team had established something similar in the past but lacked an easily accessible venue in the city centre. Working together the services have been able to achieve far more.

Advice sessions take place at the Central Library in Leeds and are very informal meetings. They take place every month and parents don’t need to book a place but can attend as and when they feel the need. Numbers of attendees average about 12 parents per month, but some sessions have double that number. Originally the idea was to set up advisory sessions across multiple sites but by talking to parents, the project team learned that while access to the software needed to be within easy travelling distance, parents were prepared to travel to the advice sessions. A single large group also means parents are not under pressure to attend in order to ‘keep the numbers up’.

Download: Autism advice session timetable flyer

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Evaluation has shown that over 200 people have benefited from Boardmaker learning sessions. The sessions have been delivered to teachers, school support staff, children’s centre staff, social workers, clinical psychologists, speech and language therapists and workers from Voluntary Action Leeds and Mencap.

 As a result of using Boardmaker in libraries more schools in Leeds have purchased Boardmaker software and school staff are contacting the library service to help with staff training.

 Feedback suggests that parents, the STARS team and library staff have found the monthly advice sessions extremely rewarding. As well as families already known to the STARS team, parents of children who have not yet received a diagnosis are coming to the sessions for guidance and support.

 On the computers where Boardmaker is installed it is often the third most popular application after Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word.

 Boardmaker’s usage statistics continue to improve.  In the six months from April to September 2010 it was used 514 times for 184 hours. 

Direct impact on children and young people

The Library Service staff rarely come into direct contact with the children and young people the project is designed to help. To collect more qualitative information, staff recorded conversations with parents and partners.  The resulting case studies really showed the value of the project and the difference it was making to the lives of everyone involved.  The case studies helped the project team meet the original aims of the UK Online funded project to demonstrate the social impact of computers and ICT.  They also helped in the application for awards, to promote the project to staff and other partners and user groups. 

Sample quotes from the case studies include:

“Without the symbols, he just doesn’t even make the effort to speak… For me and him, in our little world, pictures are fantastic.”

“The symbols give Christopher some control and they give him a voice.  He can say what he wants to happen.  In terms of his confidence, he’s much happier now.  I’m building up the number of symbols that I’ve got at home by coming to the library.”

“I honestly don’t know what I would have done without this service, I really don’t. It just felt like, in this world where you have to fight for everything, somebody cared.”

Benefits for families:

 Families know that autism and associated communication and behavioural issues are more widely understood and accepted by library staff.

 Families have easy access to Boardmaker software and no longer have a long wait for new symbols.

 Families no longer have to buy books to find out more about their child’s condition. The books that STARS recommends are now available from any of the libraries in Leeds.

 Families have access to informal advice and support sessions.

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Benefits for children and young people:

Parents report that access to this wide range of symbols opens up a new world of communication between them and their children.

“When STARS were working with us, my STARS worker used to bring me some symbols when she came to visit, and I bought some symbols with animals on from eBay. So I’d got a few, but nowhere near what I needed. I haven’t been able to expand communication with him because I didn’t have the facilities. But now I’m in the library about three times a week and I’ve been printing out all sorts of symbols. The next step will be emotions and things like that.” Parent

“For me it was fantastic because it stopped a lot of his aggression. It’s so nice for him now to be able to use his symbols to say, “I want this.” or “I want that.” He can ask for something and interact with the world. Since he’s been using symbols his speech has developed a little bit too. He does try to say what’s on his sentence strip. Without the symbols, he just doesn’t even make the effort to speak.” Parent

Library staff have received feedback from parents about numerous situations in which use of the symbols to explain what is happening (for instance on a plane journey) has significantly reduced anxiety and behavioural problems.

Maintaining high standards

Library staff were all trained ahead of the initial launch of the software but there is a fairly regular staff turnover and movement of staff between libraries. It is therefore really important to keep on top of training and ensure that librarians in libraries with Boardmaker are trained in the use of the software and autism awareness.

In addition to staff awareness of autism, it is also really important that parents receive a quick response when they initially come to the library to access the software. Waiting times for initial software training differ across sites and the Project Coordinator would like to make response times more uniform across the city.

Further supporting quotes

“This project has been both innovative and empowering for parents. Boardmaker is now freely available for parents in libraries across the city. With advice and support from local libraries parents are able to make, print and laminate visual support materials for their children. The library service is actively facilitating communication development for this group of children. For children with autism and their families, this project has been the most significant development in the city this year.”  Lesley Lewis, Advanced Skills Teacher in Autism

“I don’t feel so isolated or overwhelmed now. It really has made things easier and I feel very lucky that this has become available at the time James was diagnosed.”  Parent

“At the monthly session I discovered that there were lots of people on hand, both professionals and experienced parents, who could help with a variety of problems my son was experiencing.  Because Boardmaker is also available at the sessions I am able to discuss the best strategy and visual prompts for his problem and print them off there and then.”  Parent

“It’s so exciting to have the opportunity to have a meeting place in libraries… it’s an enormous comfort to realise: I’m not alone in this, my child isn’t the only child who does this.”  Parent

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For more information about the Leeds Library Service Boardmaker Project contact:

Jason Tutin. Area Development Librarian: Learning, Leeds Library and Information Service
Tel: 0113 395 2357

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