Incident Offers Opportunity for Education on Serving Patrons with Autism

Experts push awareness and education after a boy with autism was asked to leave a New Jersey library.
  Dan Weiss was leafing through his local newspaper when he saw a story about a boy with autism being asked to leave a New Jersey library. "It's the textbook, exact situation that you don’t want to read about," says Weiss,  director of the Fanwood (NJ) Memorial Library and co-founder of Libraries and Autism: We're Connected. "When we started Libraries and Autism in 2008, part of the genesis of it was an incident exactly like this. It was the impetus for the need for awareness and customer service training on how to deal with situations involving folks on the spectrum." Libraries and Autism created a training video that is available on their website, along with other resources. They also conduct workshops and training sessions around the country"to address the real world implementation of best practices and universal service for people with ASD and their families and helps staff to improve their ability to provide excellent, inclusive, universal customer service to everyone who uses the library." They had not done any training sessions at the nearby Franklin Lakes (NJ) Public Library where this month's incident took place, according to Weiss. Jacqueline Laurita, mother of eight-year-old Nicholas, who has autism, posted on Facebook and Twitter that her son was kicked out of the library for tapping on DVDs and humming. Laurita, a reality television personality known to many for her time on Bravo's The Real Housewives of New Jersey, posted a video of her son tapping on the DVDs and returning them to the shelves. She said when asked to leave, Nicholas had a meltdown, and no staff member attempted to help her as she struggled to exit the library with him. "Ten years later and we’re still [seeing this], so that’s unfortunate," says Weiss, who addresses these kinds of situations in the workshops he hosts around the country. Weiss adds that there has been "tremendous increase in awareness and action by the library community at large on this issue," but this points out the need for more.
The Franklin Lakes Public Library released a statement saying, in part, "No patron is ever asked to leave the Library unless and until their actions are depriving other patrons of the ability to enjoy our services." There were no further details provided about the incident, nor a defense of staff actions or apology to Laurita and her son. Online reaction has run the gamut from blanket support for the Lauritas to those defending the actions of the library staff, or saying the full details of the situation aren't known. Neither Laurita nor staff contacted at the library have responded to SLJ's requests for interviews.

Autism Awareness Month

While April is Autism Awareness Month, this situation is a reminder that that despite greater growing recognition of autism, there is still a need for education and training. In a Facebook post, Jacqueline's husband, Chris Laurita, relayed a story his wife had shared with him about a trip to the same library a day before Nicholas was asked to leave. When a young girl asked Jacqueline Laurita why Nicholas was humming and tapping the DVDs, Laurita explained about his autism and the reason for the behaviors. The girl ended up asking his name and saying hello. "This little girl took the time to ask questions and learn about Nicholas. She was then educated and then accepted him," Chris Laurita wrote before offering unsolicited advice to the staff at the Franklin Lakes library—apologize, admit the mistake, and invite the Lauritas in to offer suggestions on how to better serve the autism community. "Turn this negative situation into a positive and be the example for change and acceptance." Weiss agreed that this moment could be used for positive change. While he doesn't typically reach out to a library in this situation, his Fanwood location is not far from Franklin Lakes. He contacted the director to offer some resources and training. Barbara Klipper is a retired librarian and author of the book Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and has created resources and run training for library staff to better work with the autism community. Like Weiss, Klipper has seen great strides among libraries, but still sees work to be done. She often sees both sides in such cases. While asking someone to leave is the absolute last resort, she says, there does need to be a rule regarding behavior. "Nobody should make the library unusable and unsafe for other people," she says. "There’s a line. There’s a line for everybody. I worked with teens, and I would never kick a group of teens out of the library for being a little noisy, because they were excited working together on a school project, and they were giggling a little bit and being teenagers, any more than I would kick out a kid with autism because he asked me the same question 15 times or he gets too close. "It’s a continuum and it’s an education process, both for the patrons and the staff."

Making a difference

Klipper knows first-hand the fear of a parent of a child with autism can feel in public. "When you take your child out, you do not breathe," she says. You arealways worried about what's going to happen or "waiting for that shoe to drop." "When people are nice to you—welcoming, accommodating—you remember those things," she says. With training and resources, libraries can do a lot to make their space inviting for children with autism, and they can react in a respectful, empathetic way when a situation arises. Parents too must communicate with staff and recognize when things aren't going well for their child on a given day. "I've seen blame on both sides," says Klipper. Renee Grassi, a youth services librarian in Illinois and advocate for accessibility, diversity, ​and inclusion in libraries, posted an open letter to Laurita on the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) website. (At the top of her Twitter page, Laurita pinned a tweet that posted the link to the letter.) Grassi said that when she read the story, her "heart broke into a million pieces." "What you experienced does not uphold the core values of librarianship, nor does it speak to the core competencies that ALSC has developed for librarians serving children in public libraries," she wrote. "Time and time again, libraries are cited in research as one of the most valued and trusted institutions. But in this case, Jacqueline, the research doesn’t matter. In this case, libraries lost your trust. And for that, I am deeply sorry." She includes a list of libraries with libraries doing "admirable work" to ensure that "people with autism and other disabilities are authentically welcomed into their spaces." Grassi's post also included some resources, including Libraries and Autism and Klipper's grant for funding innovative projects that promote inclusion of people with autism in libraries. Sixty-three libraries have applied for the grant, which shows "enormous progress," she says. It shows that libraries are seeking to add programs and resources for the community. It isn't easy. "I have sympathy all around," says Klipper of the children, parents, librarians, and directors. The real world of budgets and limited staff and resources can keep well-intended staff from executing a plan to truly accommodate everyone. This at a time when it's needed most, she says. "With cuts everywhere else, our libraries become even more important," she says. UPDATE, May 8, 2018: In an social media post, Laurita says she and her husband met with the town's mayor and the library board and all were "wonderful and open to positive changes! Great things are coming soon to #FranklinLakes! Stay tuned! A plan is in action! I am SO excited! #inclusion."
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Jane Vincelette

It is helpful to know that adults in the the autism self-advocacy community prefer the term autistic to individual with autism.

Posted : Apr 23, 2018 02:20


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