Earlier this month, SA Bronx 3 was blue — not sad, but literally blue was everywhere! Students and teachers donned blue shirts, blue jeans, blue hair ties, and blue bracelets. They walked in hallways filled with blue balloons and blue bulletin boards. School psychologist Melanie Ortiz, wearing her own blue shirt that read “Autism Awareness Day,” had carefully taped a paper cutout of a puzzle piece, the national symbol for autism awareness, to the wall. Inscribed on the puzzle piece was the message of the day: “You can be a friend to someone with autism. They might be different from you in some ways, but they are also like you in a lot of ways.”
Next to Ms. Ortiz, Fiordaliza Morel, parent of two SA Bronx 3 scholars — and the impetus behind this special day — wore a similar blue shirt with a puzzle piece. The message on her shirt was different: “So there’s this boy who has a piece of my heart. He calls me mom.”
Ms. Morel’s third son, Devin, a junior at Bard High School Early College, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at age 3. The days following his diagnosis were tough. “I didn’t know anything about autism,” Ms. Morel said, “and neither did his classmates. When my son stopped speaking and had trouble connecting with his peers, they’d call him weird because they didn’t understand that his brain worked a little bit differently than theirs.”
Her personal experience prompted her to approach SA Bronx 3’s school leadership to plan its first-ever Autism Awareness Day. “By teaching kids about ASD, we can prepare them to not only appreciate, but celebrate those differences, and to treat them with kindness and respect,” Ms. Morel said. “When I brought the idea to Melanie, she didn’t hesitate to jump on board. The first time we met to discuss, we basically planned everything we wanted to do because we were both so excited. School leadership was on board too, approving our ideas quickly and scheduling a dress-down day for the scholars so that they could wear blue.”
Ms. Ortiz saw Ms. Morel’s suggestion as a learning opportunity for the entire school community. “It’s important to remember that SA focuses on the whole-child, not just academics,” she said, “so this felt like the perfect opportunity to help develop our scholars’ character and compassion toward others. At the same time, as a school psychologist, I feel that I have a responsibility to teach scholars that not everyone experiences the world like they do, and that’s perfectly okay.”
I have a responsibility to teach scholars that not everyone experiences the world like they do, and that’s perfectly okay.
Together, they planned read-alouds, videos, and activities for SA Bronx 3 scholars to learn about ASD. The challenge, as Ms. Ortiz explained, was selecting age-appropriate resources, since ASD can be quite complicated and manifests in each person differently. “That’s why it’s a spectrum,” she said. “Some kids may have trouble showing empathy or handling loud noises, bright lights, or busy hallways. They may find it difficult to read social cues like facial expressions, and they might struggle to speak or learn the meaning of new words. But each person on the spectrum has different skills, challenges, and needs.”
In choosing books and videos for the day, Ms. Ortiz selected titles that focused on being a friend or family member to someone with ASD, rather than the fluid characteristics of ASD itself. For kindergarteners, Ms. Ortiz played “Meet Ned,” a video about a middle school boy with ASD. Ned, the video explained, lives with his mother, brother, and aunt. He loves the color green and telling knock-knock jokes. Ned also loves playing with his toy car with his friend Jack. Sometimes, though, when Ned’s friend Jack tries to get his attention when they’re playing, Ned won’t look him in the eye. Oftentimes, Ned prefers to play with only one specific toy car, or might become very upset over loud noises.
When Ms. Ortiz asked the class what they had in common with Ned, fifteen small kindergarten hands shot up in earnest. “Green is my favorite color!” one said. And another, whispered to a classmate, “Want to hear a knock-knock joke?”
“See,” she said, “we have a lot in common with Ned. So if we don’t understand why Ned won’t look at us when we speak sometimes, or gets upset over a loud noise, it’s okay. We just have to have patience, like Jack, because Ned’s brain works a little differently than ours. Would you still want to be Ned’s friend?”
SA Bronx 3 scholars answered with a resounding “YES!”
“I don’t expect our scholars to be experts in ASD,” said Ms. Ortiz. “But I do expect them to leave Success Academy being willing and open to accept someone with differences, no matter what that means to them.”