Imagine doing a group jigsaw puzzle and seeing that the person on your left has the piece needed, but you cannot speak or gesture to the person to let him know he has the piece. Or imagine playing charades and having to use only facial expressions and body language to convey feeling guilty, shy, or determined. On Tuesday, February 2, 90 fifth-graders learned how difficult these tasks are–and how they can be some of the challenges that face people with autism every day.
“I liked the puzzle because it involved teamwork, and it gave us a better understanding of what it is like to have autism,” said Cole Giles. For Kara Muldoon, whose brother has autism, the activities were revelatory. “They were fun, but it made me realize how hard it is for my brother,” she said.
The puzzle and charade activities were part of a two-hour program called Understanding Our Differences, funded and sponsored by the North Andover Parent Advisory Council (NAPAC). The program, created in 1978, teaches children to develop understanding and respect for their peers and others with disabilities. More than 200 schools nationwide have used the program, and the idea to bring it to North Andover came from new Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Price, who experienced it first-hand in Newton. “I am excited that this program, that I have experienced as a mother, is coming to North Andover,” said Price. “I can tell you that both my daughters have loved this program and learned a lot about others and the challenges that some of their classmates face.”
After playing the games, the students discussed what it felt like to not be able to communicate or read expressions accurately. Then they watched videos about what it is like to have autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, and Aaron Levinger, a 26-year-old from Wellesley, spoke about what it is like for him having Asperger’s Syndrome. “Everyone with AS is different,” he emphasized. “One of my favorite sayings comes from author Stephen Shore: ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’” Levinger explained that oftentimes, people on the autism spectrum crave structure and routines. “When rules aren’t being followed, it upsets me,” he said. He then told the kids a story about a time when he was in third grade, and the teachers decided to switch classes for April Fool’s Day, making Levinger so upset that he cried. When discussing an inability to read social situations, Levinger recounted the time when his family was at a Super Bowl party, and he walked over and turned the TV off because the sound was bothering him. “I didn’t understand that people wanted to watch it,” he explained. “Another social rule that I never understand is that people don’t always want to talk about my special interest, game shows. I’ve come pretty close to memorizing every person who has ever hosted every game show ever made–and not just in America!” This later prompted several questions from the students about his favorite game shows.
Students remained engaged throughout the speech and asked many thoughtful questions that really exhibited their desire to understand what it is like to have autism. Questions included, were kids mean to you? (“Not really; I was never bullied”), how did you feel when you found out you had Asperger’s? (“I was happy because I thought, now I have a name for it”), are you affected less by emotion than people without AS? (“No, I have plenty of strong emotions–I just might display them differently”), and do you have any advice for my 15-year-old brother, who has autism? (“Stay calm. You’ll be OK. You will get through school.”)
After hearing Price talk about how well the program has worked in Newton (where it started), NAPAC decided to pilot the program on a small scale this year. The group chose the Franklin Elementary School because of its large autism population and the size of the school. Right from the start, principal Joe Clarke was on board with the idea. “This is an incredible program that really helps solidify the “I” (inclusion) in our RAISE values,” he said. “The games were fun, but they helped the kids think about different communication styles. And Aaron, the speaker, did a phenomenal job in bringing it to life and keeping the kids engaged and asking meaningful questions.”
NAPAC has a second program scheduled for April on learning disabilities, also at Franklin. Ultimately, the group would like to bring the program to all elementary schools and involve students in grades three through five. “Our long term goal is to take this district-wide,” said NAPAC chair Maureen Ryan. “This will increase the children’s understanding of a greater range of disabilities and chronic health conditions starting at a younger age.” Price supports this goal: “Understanding our Differences is a wonderful program that highlights everything we believe in the North Andover Public Schools: that we respect all of our students, support an inclusive environment, and foster empathy.”
By Holly Vietzke-Lynch
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Wicked Local: http://northandover.wickedlocal.com/article/20160210/NEWS/160219341/?Start=1