We’re one week into Autism Awareness Month, and I’m doing all I can to help the effort. The first of many things I can do to help increase awareness is tell you about some amazing kids. They’re doing more than their share of extending a hand to kids who might not necessarily always ‘fit in’.
Three years ago when they were just freshmen, WHS students J.J. Monro and George Copley approached teachers with an idea: They wanted to form a club to encourage acceptance of their peers and younger kids with disabilities. It was an idea inspired by someone very close to J.J.
“My brother, Ian, has disabilities. He’s in seventh grade now. His whole life my mom has pushed for him to be completely included in the classroom. He gets pulled out for OT and PT, but the majority of the time he’s there in class. His peers are so good to him, they have surprise birthday parties for him, they modify kickball on the playground for him—nobody asked them to do that. They save seats for him at lunch—if he’s sitting by himself they all go and sit with him. We’ve heard from his teachers he’s included in the classroom, and invited to birthday parties. But it’s really three of his friends who are the core, and they bring in different friends.”
J.J. and George had learned it was this action of a few kids that could make the difference—leading by example made it okay and taught peers how to be kind to others, no matter what someone’s abilities were, or weren’t.
“A disability doesn’t define somebody. We’re trying to make it so people aren’t intimidated by someone with a disability, or embarrassed to try and take the initiative,” J.J. explained.
By sophomore year they were ready to launch the club with a basic premise: encourage ‘typical kids’ to reach out to fellow students with disabilities, and model for others how easy it was to forge such relationships and promote acceptance. They called the club “Top Inclusion Models” and advertised heavily around the high school for people to join. Turnout for the first meeting was higher than other clubs usually drew.
“Some people thought they were going to be [fashion] modeling!” J.J. laughed. “But they stuck with us anyway. In all, we had 70 kids at the first meeting. We weren’t expecting that—most clubs are 10, 15 people and bigger clubs are like 20. That was huge.”
Right off the bat, they worked on a basic approach: “It can be uncomfortable or awkward if you don’t know how to handle a situation where someone is excluded or there’s someone with different needs. We didn’t want to give the idea that we would baby these people we wanted to include, but it was more that we could smoothly bring them in and incorporate them into whatever the activity may be,” George explained.
The club started training with speakers and educators, and read up on materials on helping students with different needs, and how to help make sure everyone got to participate. Coach Bruce Cunningham, a high school gym and adaptive phys. ed. teacher, talked to them about adapting activities for kids with different abilities. Other educators talked to them about how to speak to someone with a disability and not be condescending.
The club’s first big effort was to help out at ’s three Field Days at the end of its first year. They had 15 members each day helping younger students with special needs.
“What we really just tried to do is include kids—you can notice quickly who doesn’t have a partner, and you join in to be their partner. Then all the younger kids come to us because we’re talking and it’s just very natural the way it happens. Sometimes we’re needed and other times we’re not, and we just play the games and go with the flow,” J.J. said.
“It was a tremendous success,” George recounted. “We had parents coming up to us to say their kids had never fit in that well or taken part in PTA extracurricular activities. Sometimes it’s unattractive if it’s a para or adult aide helping out, but if it’s a high school kid helping a younger kid, we’re looked up to and set an example. It makes more of an impact on the younger kid’s peers.”
The club hasn’t looked back since, and they’ve been extraordinarily successful, winning kudos from their faculty advisor, WHS English teacher Mike Walsh.
“It’s really all them, the student leaders drive it; I’m more of a glorified door opener. We’ve had a groundswell of student participation and spirit. In fact, there are more students than kids for whom to direct all that amazing energy. It’s really coalesced with an evolving mission. What started as a club to include children with disabilities has really broadened to make everyone feel included. The new mission is to include the marginalized,” said Walsh.
Through this expanded mission, Top Inclusion Models has focused on anti-bullying, inclusion and breaking boundaries between stereotypical high school cliques and groups. They’ve aimed to make sure no one was left out, leading by example.
“If you were to come into the school as a stranger, you would be able to identify the kids that didn’t really fit in socially. They’d be sitting by themselves or walking by themselves, alone. So we were trying to get people to realize it’s not that difficult or too much effort to incorporate someone,” explained George.
J.J. said it seems to be working. “I’m not saying it was us who did it, but our grade is so close. The senior class is really inclusive. I’d say, in middle school you don’t say ‘Hi’ to everybody, you don’t know everybody and you’re nervous to talk to people. As we’ve grown up, we have all matured and accepted everybody.”
George agreed, “We’ve matured past the idea labels and groups.”
The club has targeted one specific negative label, concerned about how readily teens throw around the word ‘retarded’. They’ve brought in a national campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word” to try to change behaviors and perceptions. By recruiting students to sign a pledge to stop using the r-word and distributing thousands of stickers which are now seen everywhere around the high school, including on student binders and cell phones, J.J. thinks they’ve markedly increased awareness.
“At first people were more nervous to stand up and say, ‘Hey don’t call somebody a ‘retard,’ or even ‘Don’t use that word.’ Now, everybody is all for it.”
Besides talking the talk, other club activities show the members are walking the walk. “One thing we do is ‘Mix It Up Lunch Day,’ which is where a Top Inclusion Models representative, whether it be a freshman to a senior, sits at a completely random lunch table. Normally if one kid went and did that it would be [he makes a skeptical face] but when you see 25-30 people sitting with different people, engaging in conversations and being outgoing, that broadens people’s social skills and they accept one another. I can sit down and have a conversation with a stranger. Usually, in high school, people sort of stick to their friends, but we’re breaking that,” George said.
Top Inclusion Models works with other partner clubs in the high school, including , an inclusive, adaptive soccer program run through Wilton Parks and Rec.; Best Buddies, a volunteer program that pairs high school students with and without disabilities, to promote understanding and respect through friendships and typical teenager activities; and PeerVention, which trains students to be peer guidance counselors in the belief that students are more likely to turn to friends with problems than to teachers or other adults.
As seniors, J.J. and George are reflecting on what they’ve contributed to the school community over the last three years, and know they’re leaving an important legacy.
“Our club mottos are ‘Break Barriers, Build Friendships’ and ‘Create a Strong Community,’ and I think we’ve really done that, and I’m proud of that,” J.J. noted.
George observed that his work in the club has strengthened an important belief: “No one deserves to be left out. No one deserves to feel awkward walking down the school hallway or sitting in the cafeteria. As a human being, the way you have to live by is for your peers. Obviously everything you do is for yourself, but there’s no point in not including others.”
These two amazing teens also have some words of advice for parents, things they’ve learned as kids that they know carries a lot of weight with their young peers.
“I think the only way to teach your kids how to treat others kindly is by doing it yourself. Look it’s a different generation, but I hear parents use the word ‘retarded’ and they don’t use ‘people first’ language—which is someone is a person before they have a disability [i.e. ‘child with autism’ vs. ‘autistic child’]. I see adults talking down to people with disabilities. Really it should be the opposite. It’s really all about role modeling and attitude. Lecturing is not as effective, modeling is a lot more powerful.
I’m glad that in promoting Autism Awareness, I’ve become aware of the amazing good these younger-but-wiser kids have been doing within the walls of our town’s high school, in order to break down the walls that separate us as people.