Making life better can be easy, just by reaching out to others who may be a little different.
Three soon-to-be sixth-graders in the Rockwood School District are trying to do that through the REACH program they created this year.
REACH stands for the Road to Embrace Autism with Care and Heart.
It’s being used in Uthoff Valley and Kellison elementary schools to help students there understand and learn more about kids with disorders such as autism.
Kevin Schuller, Taylor Baxter and Emily Oster, 11-year-olds who will attend Rockwood South Middle School in Fenton, told the district’s Board of Education Aug. 2 they want to expand their program district-wide.
They created it in February when the trio attended Uthoff Valley.
It’s characterized by difficulties in social interaction, as well as some fine motor skill problems and sensitivity to noise, said Kevin’s mother, Debbie.
“He had been teased, with kids being mean to him,” she said. “And then Emily and Taylor got involved after Kevin, in fourth grade, gave a presentation along with his speech and language teacher about his Asperger’s and what it’s like to have it and why he acted the way he did sometimes.”
“I’ve been bullied and teased by kids who didn’t understand me,” Kevin said. “As part of the presentation, I read a book to the class on what it feels like to have Asperger’s syndrome.”
Taylor said last year she noticed Kevin when he sometimes acted in ways she didn’t understand.
“My mom thought he may have autism, so she decided to get me a book to help me understand autism better,” Taylor said. “That little bit of knowledge has made me want to learn more about autism. It has given me opportunities to educate my friends about autism and why some kids might act a little different. My friends now are more patient and accepting to people of all abilities.”
That’s how she, with help from Emily and Kevin, formed REACH to help kids with different abilities fit in.
“We wanted to be proactive, not reactive, because education at an early age can make a huge difference in our lives,” Taylor said. “Kevin’s now one of my closest friends, and he made me want to learn more. Every kid wants to be understood and accepted and needs friendship.”
Emily, too, saw Kevin getting picked on, but “now I know he just wants to be accepted and have close friends, just like me.”
The kids established a program that could extend throughout district-wide, like Rockwood’s bullying program does, Taylor said.
At the two elementary schools, kids are learning how distractions like assemblies and fire drills and unstructured time like recess and lunch can be hard for kids with autism. And they’re encouraged to include those with different abilities in their activities, such as on playgrounds, Emily said.
“For instance, though he didn’t want to be on the field, Kevin has helped us play kickball by being a referee,” Emily said.
Kevin called REACH “really needed in all schools.”
“I had been upset a lot, it was hard to finish school work, and I didn’t even want to go to recess for awhile,” he said. “But with REACH, kids began to understand and treat me better. REACH does work and can prevent bullying.”
In their presentation to the board, the three kids laid out some possible REACH activities at all schools, such as having guest speakers come in, promoting involvement with the Walk Now For Autism Speaks event, having special assemblies, having books available about autism, and even demonstrating sensory processing differences by having kids without autism listen to a teacher’s instructions while loud music is playing and then trying to write down what was said.
The kids even created a website, www.reachautism.org.
REACH operations in Uthoff Valley and Kellison “are allowing teachers to work together on great ideas,” said Suzanne DuPree, Kellison’s assistant principal.
“As these kids move on to middle school, they just want to continue to be sensitive to those with special needs and have friends of all abilities,” she said.
Janet Strate, president of the Board of Education, said REACH is a new idea and until the kids’ presentation, no one in the district knew much about it.
“We have a great character ed program, and we may be able to incorporate some of their ideas into that existing program,” she said.
- Autism Awareness Effort By 11-Year-Olds May Expand (stlouis.cbslocal.com)