BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — The welcome mat is out for children with autism and it's in the form of bags filled with items to calm the children, a specially designed story time and a wellness room.

The Bloomington and Normal public libraries have amped up services to kids on the autism spectrum, thanks in part to conversations with Autism McLean, which advocates for people with autism in McLean County.

"We're very excited with the actions taken by the Bloomington and Normal public libraries to become more autism-friendly," said Kari Sandhaas, an Autism McLean board member and chair of its Autism Friendly Community initiative.

"They are great role models for what an organization can do very simply to become autism-friendly," Sandhaas said.

About 3,000 people in McLean County have autism, a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors and speech and nonverbal communication.

The libraries' latest effort to improve services to children with autism began May 9 with Sensory Story Time at the Bloomington library.

Sensory Story Time, which is free and doesn't require registration, is intended for children with autism but is open to any child who may benefit, said Danny Rice, Bloomington Public Library children's librarian. Sensory Story Time will include special stories, music, activities, play and socialization.

Children's siblings and caretakers are invited.

"Some families were not comfortable bringing their children to story time," Rice said. "There was a gap we needed to bridge."

Sensory Story Time will continue until Aug. 11. The library intends to add the story time to its fall lineup if enough people attend the summer sessions, Rice said.

Both libraries added sensory bags, donated by Autism McLean. The sensory bags include headphones to block out noise, sunglasses to dim bright lights, fidget toys to occupy hands and visual communication cards for children who have trouble verbalizing.

The bags are intended for children with autism but may be used by any child who may benefit, Rice said. The Bloomington library has five sensory bags.

Normal Public Library has six — five available in children's services and one in the wellness room. The wellness room, which opened last fall, is intended as a calm place for a child who is having a rough time to "regroup," said Children's Services Manager Tori Melican. The room includes adjustable lighting, several seating options and fidget tools, she said.

Wiggle seats and fidget toys also are available during Normal Public Library's regular story time, Melican said.

"We want the library to be a welcoming, friendly environment for everybody," Melican said.

Autism McLean has filled 50 bags and hopes to fill and distribute another 50, Sandhaas said. Miller Park Zoo and Children's Discovery Museum also have sensory bags, she said.

"We would like to reach restaurants, sports facilities, bowling alleys and churches," Sandhaas said. "It's about making families feel welcome and understood."

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/2FVzOQ9

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com