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CUMMING, Ga. — The number of kids with autism in Georgia’s schools is rising so quickly, educators are trying to find ways to deal with it.
It’s not just the students with autism they worry about, but the perceptions of the other students who go to school with them.
A new film is trying to change how teenagers, in particular, look at kids with autism. It debuted last October at the ReelAbilities ALT Disabilities Film Festival.
The film’s message is powerful not only because teens with autism speak candidly on camera about their disorder, but because teenagers produced the documentary at a level they knew their peers would understand.
The film begins with a young man standing in the middle of the hallway as dozens of teens pass by him and don’t acknowledge him.
“Every day you walk down the hall not really thinking about anything in particular,” stated the film’s narrator. ” And, you don’t realize the student walking next to you is autistic.”
The film asks the question: “Are You Aware?” and, appropriately, that’s the film’s title.
It’s written, produced and directed by Kaden Ochocki and Trevor White, seniors at West Forsyth High School.
“I wanted to convey that making fun of these kids is not OK,” Kaden Ochocki said. “They’re just like everybody else. We shouldn’t treat ’em differently. Stare. Anything like that.”
“My name’s Justin,” said a student in the film. “In December 2010, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.”
The film offers an understanding of the wide-ranging autism spectrum with interviews with health and education professionals.
“But, I think the most effective part of the film is the students advocating for themselves on the film,” Stephanie Fletcher said.
“I have trouble making friends,” Caleb Samples said in the film. “It’s my communications. Part of my autism.”
Caleb not only became involved in the film, but has helped with its promotion and fundraising, which has included selling CDs of the film and “Are You Aware” bracelets.
Caleb wants his story told.
“‘Cause a lot of times in middle school, I was bullied,” Caleb said in an interview after a showing of the film at Lambert High School.
He’s not the only autistic teen who had something to say in the film.
“If I was paralyzed and in a wheelchair the rest of my life, most likely I wouldn’t be made fun of. Being that I have Asperger’s, if I say something socially awkward, I get made fun of,” Justin said in the documentary.
The film is changing perceptions in the schools where it is shown.
“It was a touching story,” Brodie Davila said after watching the film at Lambert High School. “I feel like people who have autism, they felt very lonely in the past, but now people understand what autism is and they’re trying to help and make them feel more comfortable in a normal environment.”
Many of those involved with “Are You Aware” will participate in sixth annual the Walk Now for Autism Speaks at Atlantic Station. 11Alive is a sponsor, and Chief Meterologist Mike Francis and Education Reporter Donna Lowry will serve as emcees for the event.