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Library hosts autism-friendly browsing hour

North Liberty Community Library partners with Iowa City group to develop program
Kayla McKee and her daughter share the experience of water beads at a sensory station during the browsing hour for people with autism and their families, held Oct.14, at the North Liberty Community Library. (photo by Janet Nolte)

NORTH LIBERTY– Over 40 people attended the North Liberty Community Library’s first autism-accessible browsing hour Friday, Oct. 14. The library partnered with the Iowa City Autism Community (ICAC) to plan the event as an opportunity for autistic individuals and others with sensory processing disorders to interact with therapy animals and explore sensory stations and games.
“From the library staff’s perspective, the browsing hour was a huge success,” said North Liberty Community Library Director Jennie Garner. “Collaborating with the Iowa City Autism Community group to offer programs helps us reach a population that may otherwise not feel comfortable in the library.”
Garner learned of hosting a browsing hour from Susan Craig, Director of the Iowa City Public Library. Craig put her in touch with Dina Bishara and Jessie Witherell, two moms with the ICAC group, to discuss how North Liberty could get involved and host its own event.
“Dina and Jessie shared with us that the library environment during open hours can be loud and bustling, which isn’t necessarily conducive to creating a positive experience for someone with autism,” said Garner. “Our goal at the library is to reach as many people as possible in our community and provide services that not only meets their needs but also makes them feel welcome.”
Working with Bishara and Witherell, the library invited Holly Walker to bring Marigold, a miniature horse from Winds of Change Mini-Equine Therapy, and Brittney Thomas to bring Petey, a therapy dog, to take part in the program. Erin Silva, North Liberty’s Youth and Teen Services librarian, researched ideas for sensory stations, such as the multi-colored water beads Garner said were a big hit with many of the kids.
“Seeing the joy in the eyes of kids petting both Marigold and Petey was just wonderful,” said Garner. “It was such fun to have a mini-horse and a dog in the library for the event, and so kind of their owners to give of their time and energy to have them there and provide that experience for this group of library users.”
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum, with one out of 42 boys and one in 189 girls diagnosed. The two primary diagnostic criteria for autism are: persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.
Dina Bishara, a parent member of ICAC, believes autistic writer Nick Walker offers a valuable, less clinical description of autism.
“Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing,” reads Walker’s blog, neurocosmopolitanism.com. “One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological ‘operating system’ than non-autistic individuals.”
According to Bishara, public perceptions of autism are evolving from awareness campaigns to an increasing emphasis on acceptance based on activism within the autism community.
“Unfortunately, awareness campaigns were wedded to scary rhetoric about ‘epidemics’ and children being ‘stolen’ from their parents by autism, and did little to actually help autistic people,” she explained.
Bishara added advocating for acceptance is a much better approach because it puts awareness into positive action and it acknowledges autism is a natural form of human neurological diversity.
“We are looking for opportunities in the community where we can partner with organizations to work collaboratively on how to make spaces like the library more autism-accessible and inclusive to families with autistic members,” she said.
Garner noted the library staff is very open to making the browsing hour a regular calendar item and hosting other events.
“Erin already has some ideas for additional special programs she’d like the library to offer people with autism and their families,” she said.
Bishara and Witherell said they appreciate the support of the community partners ICAC has worked with so far. Another autism-accessible browsing hour is slated for Nov. 12, from 9-10 a.m, at the Iowa City Public Library.
Plans for other future events include sensory-friendly jumping times throughout the year hosted by trampoline parks in Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha and an autism-friendly painting program at Brush and Barrel paint studio in Coralville.
For more information, visit ICAC’s website and Facebook page.