To help reach an underserved portion of readers, at least two central Ohio library systems have begun to implement programs and storytimes dedicated to patrons on the autism spectrum.

Worthington Libraries' Old Worthington Library held its first autism-friendly browsing hour in January, while the Westerville Public Library has taken an event-focused approach for children and adults with autism.

During Worthington Libraries' autism-friendly browsing hour, library lights were dimmed, noise-canceling headphones were provided, quiet spaces were designated throughout the building and all of the library's materials and technology were available to visitors. A specially designed storytime also was held.

Adult-services librarian Kristin DeMay helped organize the browsing hour. She said it was a great success for about 35 visitors, mostly families with children on the spectrum, but also some teenagers and a few adults.

"One mother specifically said her older children, who are not on the spectrum, love to come to library, but she's always afraid to bring her youngest child, who's on the spectrum, because he's too loud or acts out too much and she's worried about that stigma," DeMay said. "Stories like that are exactly what we wanted. That's our target audience."

The library system worked with the Autism Society of Central Ohio, which is based in Worthington, to plan the browsing hour, DeMay said.

She said she and others took inspiration from sensory-friendly events elsewhere, such as at movie theaters, museums and concert venues.

The Westerville Public Library's events for those on the autism spectrum include an "accessible book club" for those with developmental disabilities, a "sensory storytime" designed specifically for those on the spectrum and a sensory-friendly version of its "Tunes and Tales" program that teams music with stories.

Westerville teen librarian Michala Sage said because "things need to be presented in a different way for them to be engaged and entertained," events designed specifically for those on the autism spectrum are important.

"Families that have kids that need to move around, can't handle large crowds, need to filter out loud noises and have issues with bright light or the humming noise from lights might shy away from traditional library programs for fear of being disruptive," she said.

In Worthington, DeMay said, organizers wanted the browsing hour to seem normal and not like an event.

"It's just, 'Come to the library and do your thing,' " she said. "Whatever you want to do, we're open. Go for it."

DeMay said that for her and other librarians working the special browsing hour, it was a bit more rewarding than a typical shift.

"It was definitely more than just a reluctantly coming into work that day," she said with a smile.

DeMay said Worthington Libraries officials want to make the sensory-friendly browsing hour a quarterly feature.

The next browsing hour is scheduled from noon to 1 p.m. April 15 at the Old Worthington Library, 820 High St.

For more information, visit worthingtonlibraries.org.

The Westerville Public Library, 126 S. State St., has sensory-friendly storytimes scheduled from 9:30 to 10 a.m. Friday, March 16, and April 20 and accessible book-club meetings at 10 a.m. April 9 and May 14.

For more information, visit westervillelibrary.org.

Other local libraries

Columbus Metropolitan Library, central Ohio's largest library system with the Main Library in downtown Columbus and 22 branches, does not offer autism-inspired programs, according to Ben Zenitsky, a marketing and communications specialist for the system.

"We do not currently have any programming specifically aimed toward children with autism," he said in an email last month.

However, Zenitsky said, the system's library branches "routinely bring in therapy dogs" for their summer-reading programs.

Meanwhile, Southwest Public Libraries communications manager Mark Dubovec said the system once had a "special-needs storytime" and other after-school programs geared toward those with disabilities, but "the turnout was so low, they were discontinued."

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