With the goal of helping staff, students, and family members learn more about autism, the Tomahawk Elementary community dedicated a month to raising awareness, and working to increase understanding, empathy, and inclusivity.
It was a project developed by students, staff, and families with added hope of supporting students in the school’s Structured Learning program, which serves students who have autism, Principal Erin Aldrich said.
The school community wore blue throughout the month to show support and acceptance for peers with autism. With the assistance of community members, the school was lighted in blue in the evenings as part of the observance. Additionally, the schoolyard fence shared a message of unity created by the teachers stating “Blue 4 Autism Acceptance.” Students and staff participated in lessons throughout the month. They dedicated time to watching videos and held discussions. One key lesson was that autism is different for every child.
As a unifying activity, students, parents and staff took part in tie-dying t-shirts to reinforce that idea. Each shirt stated “All United, But Unique!”
All classes engaged in ‘hands-on’ experiences, designed to help students gain better understanding of what it’s like to live with Autism. Their experiences included visual, sound, and touch simulations, led by Structured Learning class teachers. Simulations included wearing sunglasses layered with a coating, reflecting a visual difficulty in focusing. Students were also given a broken writing utensil and asked not to speak, but to write their name, intended to help students empathize with an experience of a communication struggle.
As a culminating activity, students submitted written and recorded reflections centered on the theme: “How Can I be an Inclusive Student?” Student responses overwhelmingly included practicing kindness by saying hello, helping those who experience difficulty advocating for themselves, accepting all classmates by engaging with those with autism and helping however possible to create a more sensory-friendly place.
“Student engagement and commitment has been phenomenal and heart-warming,” Aldrich expressed.
This year, the Autism Society shifted language from calling April Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month.
“The shift in the use of terminology aims to foster acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care and comprehensive long-term services,” noted a release from the society.