Library apologizes to father for treatment of autistic son

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 27, 2014 

A father has complained and the Columbus Public Library manager has apologized after two staff members said a 14-year-old autistic boy is too old to use a computer in the children's department.

Adan Gonzalez said he has been taking his son, along with his three other children, ages 11, 9 and 4, to the library for years without any problems. The teen is a rising seventh-grader but acts more like a fourth- or fifth-grader, his father said, so the children's department has seemed like the appropriate place for him in the library. The boy likes to play Minecraft there.

And the department's staff has agreed - until Thursday.

It was the first weekday this summer the family had gone to the library, Gonzalez said. They usually go on Saturdays, he said, so he didn't recognize the children's department staff members that day.

The family arrived around 3 p.m., and plenty of computers were available for others when the four children sat together, Gonzalez said. Here's what happened next, according to the father:

A staff member approached Gonzalez and asked the age of the boy, who is about 6 feet tall. Gonzalez replied that his son was 14 but has been allowed to use a children's computer. The staff member said he was too old for that area and should go to the teen department. Gonzalez explained that his son has autism and can't be left alone, which the father would have to do while he watched his three other kids in the children's department. The staff member checked with her supervisor, but the supervisor gave Gonzalez the same instruction.

Gonzalez said he was too upset to try their solution, so he took his children home.

"My son asked me what he did wrong," said Gonzalez, who tends to the children while his wife works at a hair salon after he was laid off from his job at Blue Cross Blue Shield a year and a half ago. "I told him that he did nothing wrong. They're just ignorant or something.

"He started biting his fingernails and asked me if we're going back to the library. I told him I didn't know."

Alan Harkness, the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries director, sure hopes so. He said Stephen Pharis, the Columbus Public Library manager, called Gonzalez on Friday morning, apologized and told him the teen is welcome to use the children's department computers.

Although the library policy reserves the children's computers for ages 12 and younger, Harkness said, the staff overreacted and should have taken the circumstances into account.

"Stephen is telling the appropriate department head and the staff members to be more sensitive," Harkness said. "We are a public library, and we want everybody to use us."

Gonzalez wasn't reached Friday for his reaction to the library's apology.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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