Iowa City Public Library will open early for accessible browsing hour

Iowa City Public Library strives to be inclusive of autism community

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jonah Heath is a five-year-old from Iowa City who loves to read, especially with his mom, Jessie Witherell.

However, because Jonah is autistic, he doesn’t feel comfortable in the Iowa City Public Library, with its large number people and distractions.

“A lot of times he gets really upset, we usually have to leave without getting a movie or the book Jonah wanted,” said Witherell, co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community.

The Iowa City Public Library is taking steps to ensure these members of the community have the same opportunity to use their services as everyone else, Witherell said.

On Saturday, the library will open at 9 a.m., an hour before usual opening time, exclusively for those on the autism spectrum and their families. No registration is required to participate.

“We just want to make sure we’re inclusive to everyone and it’s a meaningful day for everyone,” said Angela Pilkington, children’s services coordinator at the library.

During Autism Accessible Browsing, visitors have a chance to check out items in a dimmed-light setting and watch a shadow-puppet performance by Darring Crow, a Cedar Rapids-based storyteller, in the Children’s Room. Two therapy dogs — one from Therapy Dogs of Johnson County and another from One on One Dog Therapy Consulting and Mentoring — also are set to be there.

Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects about one in 68 American children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information, the National Autism Society notes.

Dina Bishara, another Iowa City Autism Community founder, said children with autism are “tuned to a different frequency” and can experience sensory or information overload, which can be caused by loud noises or bright lights.

“I don’t think anyone really thinks about going to a crowded place and how physically painful this would be for someone to sit through,” Witherell added.

Bishara’s eight-year-old autistic son, Benjamin Hacker, went to the library this summer for the first time in more than a year.

Benjamin “just felt good knowing there was an effort being made to accommodate people like him because that’s really been a struggle for him,” Bishara said.

Bishara said organizers hope the hour also creates an accepting atmosphere for families with children with autism who sometimes have to deal with stares or unsolicited comments from strangers in public.

“When you have an event that is sort of limited in this way to families affected by autism, if your kid is making an unexpected noise or if they have a meltdown, everyone around you is going to understand and people won’t think they’re a bad parent,” Bishara said.

The library was approached with the idea by Witherell and Bishara, and the pair expressed interest in their organization convincing other venues — restaurants, grocery stores — hilding similar events.

The North Liberty Community Library will hold an autism-accessible browsing event Oct. 14.

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