April 23, 2018

Iowa City PL Institutes Autism Accessible Browsing Hour

Petting and brushing one of the two therapy dogs at ICPL's Autism Accessible Browsing Hour

Petting and brushing one of the therapy dogs at ICPL’s Autism Accessible Browsing Hour
Photo credit: Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) prides itself on welcoming all members of the community, and recently found a way to extend that service by introducing an Autism Accessible Browsing Hour for all ages. The library’s bright and inviting children’s room plays host to a variety of kids of all abilities, including through its Sensory Storytimes for children on the autism spectrum, but the boisterous atmosphere can be too loud, too bright, and too busy for some children with sensory issues.

Last spring Dina Bishara and Jessie Witherell, cofounders of the Iowa City Autism Community (ICAC), approached ICPL children’s services coordinator Angela Pilkington about setting aside a time for kids on the autism spectrum to use the library, and she jumped at the chance. ICPL’s first Autism Accessible Browsing Hour took place on September 17, and was successful enough that ICPL will be continuing the service.


Bishara and Witherell, mothers of sons with autism, were looking for ways to increase autism accessibility in the Iowa City community. Both agreed that the library could be a good partner. “The great thing about our library is that it’s very successful, very well used, beloved by families and children,” explained Bishara, “but for my son, that meant crowds, noise, unpredictability.” Her eight-year-old son, Benjamin, hadn’t set foot in the library for a year, she told LJ, and Witherell’s five-year-old found it hard to tolerate as well.

They had researched public library programs for children on the autism spectrum or with other sensory integration issues, but had turned up little other than Sensory Storytimes—programs combining stories and songs with props and tactile activities, held in a quiet, distraction-free space where kids can talk and move around. Many libraries, including ICPL, also offered Sensory Storytime Kits, which included books, props, music CDs, puppets, flannel boards, fidget toys, and information on how to use them. Bishara, however, envisioned library time just for kids with sensory needs, similar to the two hours the Iowa City Children’s Museum sets aside on the last Sunday every month.

Finally they discovered the Special Access Browsing after-hours program in Longmont Public Library, CO, instituted by then–children’s collection cataloger Katherine Weadley. Now director of Lyons Regional Library, CO, Weadley is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and a strong believer that children with sensory issues particularly need the input and connection the library offers. The program at Longmont was part of a larger initiative to serve autism spectrum families, with the assistance of a 2013–14 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant.


Bishara and Witherell sent Weadley’s 2015 article in Public Libraries Online to Pilkington and asked if she would consider doing something similar at ICPL. That kind of program, Pilkington told LJ, “was something I’d never thought of. I like to think that libraries are for everyone, and I’ve seen different kids throughout the spectrum who come in.” But Bishara and Witherell explained how a traditional library setting could be stressful not only for children with sensory issues, but for their caregivers as well. “Most parents of autistic kids have at some point in time been on the receiving end of the sideways glances, scolding from other parents when their kids are acting in unexpected ways in public places, making unexpected noises, or maybe struggling in such a busy environment,” said Bishara.

After discussions with her director, Pilkington decided that opening an hour early on a Saturday morning would be the easiest to staff and for parents to attend, as well as a time when the large windows would let in a lot of natural light so that the overhead fluorescent fixtures—often a trigger for children with sensitivities—could be turned off. Pilkington booked a local storyteller, Darrin Crow, to perform a show with shadow puppets. Therapy Dogs of Johnson County and One on One Dog Therapy Consulting and Mentoring brought in two therapy dogs. The ICAC would provide a volunteer-staffed table with autism information.

Pilkington asked Bishara and Witherell to handle all signage and press releases, both because of their access to the autism community and their sensitivity to inclusive language. There were no age restrictions during the Accessible Browsing Hour, nor was it limited to those on the autism spectrum. Pilkington’s attitude, she told LJ, was “If you feel that a calmer time would make more sense for you to come in, please come in. We wouldn’t turn anyone away from the door.”


Teens checking out books at ICPL's Autism Accessible Browsing Hour

Teens checking out books at ICPL’s Autism Accessible Browsing Hour
Photo credit: Meredith Hines-Dochterman

The Accessible Browsing Hour brought in 62 people, including several special needs teenagers, one mother with autism, and whole families that didn’t often get the chance to go out together.

One family, said Pilkington, “brought mom, dad, grandma, and all three kids. One little boy… it was his day, it was all about him and what he wanted to do,” and the library was their first destination. Bishara’s five-year-old daughter, who is not autistic, thoroughly enjoyed the day. “For a whole year I would have to take my daughter by herself to the library,” she noted, “so it’s nice for whole families to be able to come and enjoy the library.”

Pilkington worked the door, greeting everyone. Because children on the autism spectrum often don’t like to be touched, she said, “I’d ask the little ones that were coming in if they wanted a high five or if they just wanted to say hey, and just introduced myself.” Although she didn’t turn anyone away, members of the general public were respectful and stayed in the lobby until the library officially opened.

Children spread out across the first floor, playing with toys and computers and reading. Staff members were available to assist children and parents, check out books, and help fill out forms for new library cards. The therapy dogs, in particular, were a big hit. “We didn’t have a lot of kids who wanted to leave the playthings to go in and watch the shadow puppet show,” said Pilkington, “but we had the dogs move toward our story time room and the kids just kind of followed [them], which was so cute. The dogs sat in there and the kids were able to pet them. By the time the show got going, every single child was in there, and just mesmerized.”

“The special time for autistic people is the only time I like going to the library!” said Bishara’s son Benjamin. His favorite things about the event, he added, were “Getting my library card and petting Luke [the therapy dog].” Witherell’s son, who usually wants to leave the library almost as soon as he arrives, stayed and played with the beaded toys in the children’s area and told his mother that he “loves the library now.”

Having library staff who were supportive, accepting, and inclusive made a huge difference for the success of the event, Bishara said. “It was obvious when we were at [ICPL] that the librarians were really happy that they could be participating in this, and that made all of us feel good too.”

Three of ICPL’s five managers came to observe and gave rave reviews to the morning’s events and Pilkington herself. “Their faces just lit up,” one said at the next management meeting. “You were on their level, you were greeting them, and they felt really special that this day was for them.”


The library will hold another Accessible Browsing Hour in November, and a nearby library, North Liberty Library in Johnson County, is planning a similar program on a Friday evening in October—this one with a miniature therapy horse named Marigold. The two hope to make it a monthly event.

Other libraries are showing interest in developing accessible hours as well. Angela Craig, manager of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML)’s ImaginOn children and teen branch, contacted Pilkington to find out more about the process and took the idea to CML director David Singleton. With his approval, ImaginOn will be piloting its own Accessible Hour on the first Sunday of every month before the library opens, for six months beginning in January 2017.

Weadley, Pilkington, and Craig all agree that setting up a time for patrons with sensory needs is a relatively simple and inexpensive way to provide an invaluable service for the community. But it does take some planning.

Pilkington advises interested librarians to reach out to the autism group in their community or within their state, as well as local hospitals and schools. “And then talk to them—ask how you can make [autism spectrum patrons] feel welcome, what they need.” They are also invaluable when it comes to networking and publicizing the events, added Bishara.

Check to see which staff members are interested and comfortable working with special needs, and whether local organizations can offer help in advance; the Colorado Autism Society offered several training sessions to Weadley’s staff.

Figuring out how the space will be used is also important. “When you’re talking about making things accessible, for certain disabilities it might seem kind of straightforward,” Bishara noted.” With autistic people, since they are all very different from one another, it can be more challenging to really figure out what makes an event or an institution or a building more accessible to them.” Pilkington felt that ICPL owed much of its success to the fact that there were places for noisy kids as well as quiet ones, and everyone was able to find a space to feel comfortable.

Once the event is approved, planned, and staffed, Pilkington said, “Just jump in and do it.”

After all, added Weadley, “Everybody should be welcome at the library. Nobody’s normal.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Wow, what a wonderful, compassionate program!

  2. Melinda Mullican says:

    At the Wayne Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library, we are gearing up to do Sensory Storytimes. We also want to done regular Browsing Hours. We have talked with and have the support of the Autism Consuktant from Wayne Township Schools and have reached out to the local Autism Speaks group. The Autism Consultant offered a school perspective and will help us to spread the word about our programs. We have not heard back from the Autism Speaks group. My interaction with some members in the past were, unfortunately, negative. We want to make sure that our programs are inclusive and enjoyed by all. To do that, we need help. Do you mind sharing what you did and how you did it? What about tips on what to include, what to avoid, etc.? We want to start this in 2017 but not until we have a better idea of what we are doing. Thank you!

    • Hi Melinda,

      I am one of the co-organizers of this event. This article on Web Junction gets a little more into the nuts and bolts of our events: http://www.webjunction.org/news/webjunction/autism-accessible-browsing-icpl.html

      I think being in touch with a grass-roots autism group is important. Autism Speaks often lacks in this regard. Have you researched other autism-related parent groups in the Indianapolis area on facebook, for example? Good luck! I am sure many families in your area will appreciate your efforts.