Iowa City Autism Community distributing ‘Calm Kits’ to high-need elementary schools

The Iowa City Autism Community was revamped from a previous support group by two area mothers of autistic children. They saw the need for advocacy, understanding, and accessibility for individuals with autism in the community.


Grace Colton

Dina Bishara, cofounder of the Iowa City Autism Community, displays the contents of a Calm Kit on Tuesday, February 26 2019 at Bread Garden Market. She plans to donate Calm Kits to local schools to help students with autism.

Kinsey Phipps, News Reporter

Dina Bishara and Jessie Witherell have experienced the adage that no one knows a child’s needs better than a mother.

Knowing this, the two founded the Iowa City Autism Community more than four years ago to support children with autism.

There has been an autism support group in Iowa City for many years, but it had become less active, Bishara said. She and Witherell wanted to revamp the group to better serve those affected by autism in the area, and thus, the Autism Community was born.

Today, the group works on providing Calm Kits and weighted lap blankets for autistic children in local elementary schools, Bishara said.

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“We do a lot of advocacy in the community for neurodivergent students and individuals,” Bishara said. “One of the missions of the Iowa City Autism Community is to create a more inclusive and accepting community, including in our schools.”

Eight area elementary schools receiving the largest number of free and reduced lunches will get Calm Kits for their autistic students. Those schools are Twain, Alexander, Horn, Hoover, Kirkwood, Hills, Wood, and Lucas, Bishara said. The Iowa City Autism Community wanted to serve the schools with the least number of resources.

Each kit is complete with various items targeting sensory areas. There are tactile toys, mindfulness cards, visual sensory devices, noise-dampening headphones, and breathing exercise and mood identification papers, Bishara said. The kits cost $60 each to assemble, so resources are limited, she said.

“It’s important to note that when we are giving these to schools, we are not proposing they are a Band-Aid solution to any larger issue going on,” Witherell said. “This is one tool in the toolbox that we are trying to give educators.”

There will be a volunteer event this weekend at the Coralville Public Library to sew weighted lap blankets and assemble the Calm Kits. The Autism Community’s goal is to sew as many weighted lap blankets as possible to distribute to more schools in need, Bishara said.

“I think it is wonderful that the Iowa City Autism Community is able and willing to fund these items for our students. Students will benefit greatly from having these items available,” Lisa Glenn, Iowa City School District special-education director, said in an email to The Daily Iowan.  “This is just one example of the outstanding parent and community involvement and support we regularly experience.”

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The Autism Community is entirely volunteer-operated. There is no full-time staff or fundraising chair; it’s just a group of people who are passionate about accessibility, inclusion, and opportunity for autism-affected individuals, Bishara said.

As more fundraising and resources become available, the Autism Community would like to provide Calm Kits to all schools in the school district, and the Autism Fun Walk is one of the largest fundraising events for the organization coming up on April 20. The walk raises money for the Autism Community, the UIHC Autism Center, and Autism Society of Iowa.

“We are mostly about promoting acceptance and inclusion. We are not working towards getting a cure or promoting medical research, we just want to create a place that’s very positive,” Witherell said.