Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Autism Awareness Activities in Elementary Schools

Last year, I was so impressed by the efforts of the Swanson Elementary community in Brookfield, Wis.  I was certain they were an anomaly in the education universe.  But I am glad to report I am WRONG!  There are other metro Milwaukee schools (and you likely know of one in your area) capitalizing on the opportunities Autism Awareness Month affords for the building of a culture of acceptance.

What's unique about Cushing Elementary in Delafield, Wis., is that the staff (namely, Occupational Therapist Teresa Wozniak) has an annual plan to address peer awareness throughout the school year.  To complement her work, which includes reading books and answering questions about students with diverse abilities, autism parents Mary Day and Karen Cain started planning additional activities for April way back in the fall.  Here's what they did this month:
  • Displayed original posters throughout the school with helpful tips about autism, and draped a banner across the school's entrance.
  • Decorated an informative bulletin board in the foyer showcasing famous people who have autism.
  • Asked students to write letters of support to their classmates with autism to demonstrate how much they care.
  • Organized a staff luncheon of appreciation.
  • Had student leaders make blue puzzle piece pins for all school community members to wear. 
  • Recommended all students wear blue on April 17th, following two days of Good Friend Peer Sensitivity Workshops by grade level.
This multi-modal, wrap-around model of autism awareness fosters acceptance and empathy, and moves autism from the shadows of understanding the the positive light of social relatedness.  Teachers at Cushing incorporated this concept into their curriculum, leading mini-lessons on the topic which could be tied back to learning standards.

Karen said, "I can't tell you how many times, while I have been at school, I have been stopped by staff to tell me how happy they are and love what we have done."  We were glad to be a part of it!  And we could tell by the insight of the peers and the thoughtfulness of their questions that they were learning invaluable social-emotional lessons.

What did your school do this month to promote autism acceptance?  What will you plan to do for the 2013-'14 school year?

Monday, April 8, 2013

What comes after Awareness?

It's a busy month in the Good Friend calendar: Autism Awareness Month.  We caregivers are all bustling about with blue in our 'dos and shining our lights and wearing our puzzle piece pins.  And as my own children with ASD get older (they're now 14 and 11), they're taking more notice of all the buzz.  As they take more notice and I explain in more depth, it all adds to their self-awareness.  So in our household, Autism Awareness Month really is a triple threat (and I mean that in a benign way): It's important to me as a mom, to our organization's work, and to my kids as people with ASD.

One of the tweets I (follow ChelseaMB) posted on World Autism Awareness Day was met with the following question: "after aware, then what?" [sic].  For me, the reply took far fewer than 140 characters and was instant:  Just what #GoodFriendInc stands for: ACCEPTANCE and EMPATHY!  I didn't need to ponder that.  It's what I've been focused on through Good Friend for the last five years, and even longer as a mom.

Good Friend's philosophy is that you can't explain what you can't name, so Awareness is step one.  That's what makes Autism Awareness Month so foundational.  But it cannot stop there.  Once we are aware, we work toward understanding.  Understanding leads to Acceptance.  That's step two.  When we move into understanding autism on an experiential level, we foster Empathy.  This is the step where the magic happens.  Once we've felt what it might be like for our friends with autism, we can become natural supports for them.  We will remember what we've learned when we see our friend or colleague with autism struggling, and will respond in a constructive -- versus judgmental -- way.

Constructive responses lead to successful interactions.  And more than anything else, success begets success.

So while I realize that blue for autism in April won't create autism-friendly jobs in May, it certainly does create opportunities for discussions!  Seize those opportunities to discuss with your students, your co-workers, and your community members.  Create awareness of the strengths of individuals with ASD.  Create awareness of the resources in your community, or discuss what's lacking and call the stakeholders to the collaborative table to figure out how it can be manifested.  Self-advocates: Improve self-awareness of your talents and capitalize on them.  Become aware of what supports might be there for you and put those tools in your toolbox.

Awareness is the foundation; keep building!