ORLANDO, Fla. — Derek Alexander looks forward to story time at the East Lake County Library because he fits in with the other kids.

The 9-year-old has autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and a noncancerous brain tumor that hinders his ability to control his actions and speech. His visits every other week to the Sorrento, Fla. library allow him and other youngsters with autism and related conditions to not worry about the “social boundaries” of other libraries during a program geared just for them.

“This is the only exposure he gets to a library,” Derek’s mother, Kandi Alexander, said of her son, who in addition to attending the specialized story time enjoys playing with Legos and watching Discovery Channel documentaries. “When he comes here … he knows it’s accommodating for him. If this program was not here, it would be very difficult.”

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This spring, the University of Central Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities is launching a training program geared to teach library staff about autism, such as breaking down instructions into shorter sentences, providing more individualized settings and compiling a book list for kids with autism. And Florida State University recently developed an online training tool that includes ways library staff, specifically those in rural areas, can communicate with and offer alternatives to visitors with autism.

It’s a major challenge for libraries: One in 68 children in the U.S. has autism, a condition that ranges on a spectrum from severely challenged to gifted and can affect the ways kids behave, interact and learn. Local officials say the growing prevalence of autism warrants a need for services at libraries that accommodate kids who sometimes cannot adhere to the expected “behavior code.”

“A family with one or more children with autism is constantly under fire,” said Gesa Barto, a coordinator at UCF’s autism center. “It is almost compared to a combat situation. A child that appears to be unruly or different … stresses their [library workers’] nerves a little bit.”

Officials say libraries are structured environments for kids with autism to connect with other youngsters and explore employment opportunities. But Barto said kids with autism, who may be sensitive to certain lighting and overstimulated by too many choices and people, and their parents sometimes feel uncomfortable in the quiet environments where whispering is the norm.

Some of the problem stems from staff and other visitors who don’t know how to communicate with and support visitors with autism. Barto said the pilot program she is spearheading aims to address those challenges, which she can relate to firsthand. Her son Ori, who died in 2008 at 17, had Asperger’s syndrome.

“It widens their [staff and other visitors’] horizon toward a population that is rather looked at with caution,” she said. “With informed personnel there, they can easily defuse the tension that is there and ask everyone to go on with their lives.”

FSU’s approach, funded by a federal grant, is an online interactive four-session project that will guide staffers to be aware of signs and behaviors of library visitors with autism, use supportive tactics to offer such patrons alternatives and designate an area where overwhelmed kids can retreat. The goal is to help foster an inviting space for visitors with autism. The effort will launch in the Florida Panhandle with the goal of expanding it statewide.

“We want to bring these resources to them [library staff] that they can access at any time and at any place and do it at their own pace,” said Nancy Everhart, an FSU professor and the project’s co-director. “We’re focusing particularly on autism, but hopefully it maybe … once their awareness is raised with persons with autism, maybe it would give them an incentive to look at other abilities and how they might serve those people as well.”

But not everyone provides special programs for children with autism. Orange and Osceola county libraries, for example, don’t offer story times geared to kids with autism but instead market programs as inclusive to all children.

The idea behind all-inclusive programming is to allow kids with autism and their families to feel comfortable while interacting with other youngsters of all abilities.

“It’s twofold. Everyone benefits in the inclusion setting,” said Donna Lorman, president of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando, which advocates for inclusion of people with autism in all aspects of life. “It’s just as much as a learning opportunity for our children with autism as it is with children without autism.”

But Barto, who plans to launch UCF’s training program in Lake County with the goal of expanding to other areas in the region, and Alexander said niche programs for kids with autism are vital, especially because each child has specific needs.

Alexander, 43, co-founder of a local support group of families with kids and adults with special needs, drives about 50 miles round trip from her home so Derek can attend the East Lake County Library program.

“A lot of parents want their kids included in a lot of things, but they need to be realistic … and have the stuff in place that if they have a child come in, they can accommodate that child,” she said. “I would hope that more things come from this and other libraries have these programs because there’s a need. What I can get for Derek helps me help him.”

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