BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — For students with autism, the possibilities are endless.
That was the message that Wayne Trail Elementary intervention specialists Julianne Bekker and Morgan Berchtold spread through Autism Acceptance Month.
“We’re hoping for students to gain acceptance and learn about autism and advocate for other kids with autism,” Berchtold said, “and also to be aware that everyone has unique minds.”
Talking about autism can be tricky, because it’s a whole spectrum and may present itself in a variety of ways, Bekker said. So the intervention specialists designed spirit days that included morning announcements about famous people with autism, dress-up themes and books and activities that celebrate the diversity of students with autism.
Students Maxwell Brown-field and Libby Poeppelmeier said they were impressed to learn about famous people with autism, like Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of all time, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.
“We learned that the creator of Pokemon had autism,” said Libby, speaking of Satoshi Tajiri.
Other notable people with autism include Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and chief engineer of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla and owner and CEO of Twitter. Temple Grandin, a scientist, academic and animal behaviorist, is a prominent author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior. She’s published numerous books on autism, including children’s books.
Greta Thunberg is an environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action against climate change. She refers to her autism diagnosis as her “superpower” and says finding out she is autistic was a relief for her.
That’s why one of the five dress-up spirit days included dressing as a favorite superhero. Other dress-up days included Jersey Day to team up for autism, Rainbow or Tie-Dye Day for Neuro-diversity and Sensory-Friendly Friday, on which students wore comfortable clothes in recognition of some students’ sensitivity to texture.
Maxwell said he thought that autism was when people would rock back and forth or flap their arms, but through the week’s lessons he saw that autism shows itself in a variety of ways. He particularly enjoyed hearing teachers read aloud the books A Friend for Henry and All My Stripes.
The themed days opened up conversations among teachers and students who might not normally interact with each other, Bekker said. Berchtold said she is always impressed to see neurotypical students encourage students with autism, such as when they encouraged a child who is gifted at drawing sea animals to enter a yearbook illustration contest.
The idea to host an Autism Acceptance Week was introduced by Bekker, who joined Maumee City Schools this year after teaching in another district’s self-contained classroom of students with disabilities.
“It was really refreshing coming here and having so much inclusion in the classroom,” Bekker said. “I can see how these kids can prosper in the classroom and be with their peers and be able to have access to those social skills – as well as academics – and how accepting the other students are of them.”
While Wayne Trail has done special programs on Women’s History Month and Black History Month, this is the first time the district has created a spirit week around a disability.
“The kids are so sweet and kind and patient and understanding,” Berchtold said of the Wayne Trail students.
“With a label, sometimes people sometimes think they have limits,” Bekker added. “This is about being open to accepting all of the amazing things they can do. Maybe they don’t learn in the same way as other students – you just have to change your approach to meet those different needs.”
Autism Acceptance Month was also marked at Fairfield and Fort Miami elementary schools. In addition, many teachers have shared videos and books about autism to introduce the concept in their classrooms, the intervention specialists said.