Targeting Autism Crosses the Atlantic!

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berkeley_library-2Trinity College Library in Dublin is the largest and one of the oldest libraries in Ireland, dating back to the establishment of the college in 1592.  As an historic institution, it emanates the culture of Ireland, while adapting and innovating throughout all of its history.  Today, the library boasts six million volumes with extensive collections of journals, manuscripts, maps and music.  The most famous manuscript in the collection is the Book of Kells, presented to the Library in the 1660s.

This library was the first in Ireland to automate its catalogue; the first to integrate conservation and was a pioneer in developing an exhibition around a single item. The Library continues to transform its physical and virtual services in order to better serve its diverse communities.

Rhona Dempsey, Research Fellow at Trinity College, who reads the Targeting Autism blog, reached out to our project staff to explore how the college library might better serve their patrons who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  In November, Russ Bonanno, a chief advisor with the project, was able to include an in-person consultation with Rhona as part of his vacation to the UK.  The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate accessibility and to discuss potential adaptations to accommodate students with diverse needs at the Trinity College Berkeley Library.  Library staff desired perspectives on what might present as challenges for individuals with autism and what options they might utilize to make the library areas more usable.  Physical attributes such as noise, lighting, signage and space were discussed.

The Berkeley Library building, a large granite and concrete structure, serves as the gateway or hub to several other library buildings and to the active campus life.  Because of the building design, sound reverberates from the concrete floors, walls, stairs and ceiling, which results in loud ‘cutting’ noises.  Russ offered suggestions to the staff on ways to dampen the sound without making any permanent changes that could lessen the integrity of the building.  Some of the ideas discussed included acoustic tiles, wall coverings, tapestries and/or carpeting.

In some areas, beautiful natural light comes through large skylights, in other places, standard industrial tube lighting or fluorescent can lighting is used. Studies have long shown the benefits of natural light versus artificial light in the overall health of the general population.  Researchers are still investigating the effects of various light sources and their design specifically for students with autism.  Fluorescent lights are known to create a buzzing sound and emit a sub-visual flicker that is barely perceptible to neurotypical individuals.  However, individuals with autism are often acutely aware of the humming noise and/or the flicker of light.  In addition, this lighting method has been known to trigger migraines, tics and seizures in highly sensitive people.  Options for lighting changes included using more indirect lighting or retrofitting fluorescent fixtures with LED or full spectrum lighting equivalents.

Signage was identified as a challenge area. By law, all signs with words must be displayed in both Irish (Gaelic) and English.  As a result, virtually all of the signs in the library are packed with words making navigation confusing, especially for those who are non-verbal.  In addition, the signs can be cost prohibitive for the library because it makes them so much larger to produce.  Russ and library staff discussed the importance of developing icons or pictures whenever possible to make the signs more visually recognizable.  In cases where the wording is not easily translatable to a picture, consideration was given to the use of color coding certain groups of things such as subject matter or genres of books.  The color coding could potentially continue throughout the directory, map, directional signs and the stacks.  “Color trails” were even discussed as a way to help people get from one location in the library to the next.  In addition, consideration was given to more appropriately naming certain spaces, such as the area where the three library buildings come together.  This space, now called the orientation area, in the future might be known as the commons, atrium or entrance hall.

Finally, proximity or ownership of space was addressed. Assigned study corrals and closed study rooms already exist that could prove to be a great place for students who identify as having autism for solitude and quiet concentration.  Giving consideration to these students first when appropriating that space is an easy way to ensure that the library is appropriately serving their students with autism.

The Targeting Autism initiative is very grateful for the partnership we’ve begun with our new friends in Ireland. Thanks to Rhona Dempsey for reaching out to us.  This was such a wonderful opportunity and we look forward to a continuing and fruitful relationship with Rhona and Trinity College!

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