Kids with Autism are just like any other students when it comes to desiring friends and acceptance—and should be given the chance to learn and have a solid educational experience in schools without being bullied or isolated. That's the message delivered by three students at Thursday's Rockwood School District Board of Education meeting at Crestview Middle School in Ellisville.
Taylor Baxter, an 11-year-old from Fenton, recently created a group and program called REACH, which stands for The Road to Embrace Autism with Care and Heart. She and her friends, Emily Oster and Kevin Schuller, delivered a presentation to Rockwood board directors in the hope that district officials will consider implementing the REACH program throughout the district's elementary schools. Emily and Kevin also are 11 years old. All three Fenton kids will start sixth grade this month.
Not only did the three students demonstrate first-hand knowledge about how to incorporate sensitivity to students with disabilities, they proposed a nine-month plan with step-by-step suggestions about what Rockwood elementary schools could do to implement an awareness program.
This is not the first time Baxter has launched enterprising ways to give back to the community. Last March, she set up a Before it was all over, the lemonade sales generated $500.
Taylor and other Uthoff Valley Elementary School students initiated a youth group last April named Y.E.A.H. (Youth Excited About Helping) to host an event called The idea was the brainchild of Blake Mycoskie who befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet. He started TOMS Shoes with the idea that he would donate a pair of new shoes to needy children for every pair of TOMS shoes purchased. About 50 barefoot kids marched along an asphalt walking trail in Fenton City Park to support the cause on April 5.
Taylor also was one of this year's Rockwood Dreamcatcher recipients.
Taylor said it was about a year ago that a student "acted in ways" she didn’t understand. She read a book, entitled Mockingbird, which informs people about Autism. She said she became close friends with Uthoff Valley Elementary School classmate Kevin Schuller, who has Asperger's Syndrome.
She said she then realized the importance of educating others about why some people act a little differently. It was a simple but very powerful and helpful book, she said.
Kevin said he knew he had Asperger's by the time he was in third grade, but he also has ADHD. "I came home from school upset nearly every day. Kids would take my pencils just to get me upset. I was upset a lot. I tried to hide under my desk. It was hard to finish schoolwork with all that going on. All schools are not sensitive to the needs of kids with Autism. But after Taylor and I became good friends, we knew knowledge can allow relationships to develop."
Taylor said Thursday that she really thought Kevin was getting picked on at school, after she began to be more aware. "We thought it would be good to have all kids learn about each other, like the bullying program. I wanted it to be proactive not reactive. After we got ideas together, we asked friends what to do," she said.
"Education at an early age can make a huge difference in our lives, because every kid wants to be accepted and understood. But, most of all, it's about friendship."
After Kevin did a presentation for fellow students about Asperger's, Emily said she realized he was "not that different" in that, like her, he wanted to have close friends and just to be accepted.
She said she realized everyone can learn to be more considerate. Thursday evening she gave the example of students not tapping on the chairs of students with disabilities, especially during tests. She said they also learned better how to include all friends at recess, when Kevin did not want to play a game but rather wanted to be the referee. "That still makes him part of the game."
"None of this (REACH) would have happened without the book and Kevin. We all talked and thought kids of all ages could be educated about it," said Emily.
Their proposed plan includes the following activities:
- September = M&Ms demonstration; speaker to kick off Rockwood program; promote Walk Now For Autism Speaks.
- October = Walk Now promotions; posters in school; take home fliers; formulate school teams.
- November = demonstrate sensory processing differences, such as putting sandpaper in shirts as tags, playing loud music and writing with non-dominant hands. Kevin said kids will see how hard it is to focus when one notices every single thing going on. He said while most kids are able to tune out those barriers, children with disabilities cannot.
- December = read aloud books; Abilities Awareness Day guest speaker.
- January = schoolwide assemblies; include book references at assemblies.
- February = guest speaker for grade level or classrooms.
- March = Hats On Day, money donated to local autism group.
- April = bulletin board displays for Autism Awareness Month; displays in library, incorporate art teachers; change porch lights to blue on April 2.
- May = make books about autism available for classroom free time to demonstrate this difficulty.
The three organizing students said the goals of incorporating REACH into all Rockwood schools, for all grade levels, would be so students with disabilities will not be teased or bullied by classmates, and so that they will be invited to play, accepted and included in games.
"Kids with Autism may seem different, but they just wanted to be accepted for who they are," said Kevin.
"We’re all just kids that like to have fun. When I grow up, there also will be people with disabilities. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and to have friends," said Taylor.
Rockwood board director Bill Brown, said a television program called Parenthood covers disabilities in an effective way. "It deals with exactly these same issues," he said.
After the presentation, Rockwood board director Sherri Rogers asked Kevin about the goal of a demonstration with M&Ms. He said the point was that even with all of M&M colors, when one bites into the middle, they’re all chocolate. "They look different on the outside, but on the inside, they are the same."
Editor's Note: Asperger’s Syndrome falls under the high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders.