JAMES TOWNSHIP, MI — The gym at Shields Elementary School quieted as a crowd of children wearing bright orange shirts linked arms, encircling third-grader Ashlyn McGregor as she stepped to a microphone.
“The struggles I’m facing, the chances I’m taking, sometimes might knock me down, but no, I’m not breaking,” Ashlyn sang along to the voice of her favorite singer, Miley Cyrus, and her song “The Climb.”
The 9-year-old’s performance stands out in the school’s annual talent show because of the journey it required for it to happen. Eye contact and volume are just two of the struggles Ashlyn faces as a student with autism spectrum disorder.
According to the Autism Alliance of Michigan, at least 15,000 children and young adults in Michigan are receiving services for autism through their schools. Shields Elementary offers a peer support system of 69 students, or “Vikes,” who mentor autistic students and were there to help Ashlyn at the talent show.
Principal Shelley Ducharme called Ashlyn’s performance “awesome,” and cheered the impromptu hug between the student and her Vikes.
“Every day they are with her, when she needs it,” Ducharme said.
The group includes Noah Furlo, 8, and Lauren Hildebrandt, 9, who have been mentoring Ashlyn from the beginning and said their friend did “really good” at the talent show. They said they will keep supporting Ashlyn; Furlo is especially outspoken and alerts new or substitute teachers to Ashlyn’s autism.
“I will keep helping her out, ’cause maybe the other teachers don’t know,” Furlo said.
Ashlyn attended kindergarten elsewhere, and teachers did not know how to handle her disorder, her father Jason McGregor said. Her mother, Christina McGregor, said she was told her daughter “could not be taught.” They moved their daughter to Shields Elementary in the first grade.
“After the first year here, we sold our house and moved here. They have worked with her tirelessly,” Jason McGregor said.
Kathy York is one of the teachers who has been following Ashlyn’s education since first grade.
“She just took to learning,” even placing in the top students for the Accelerated Reading program, York said.
“It just shows how far she has come and how comfortable she feels,” York said.
Ashlyn’s younger sister, Morgan, is in kindergarten at Shields, and her younger brother, Jason attended the performance with their parents.
“I wish all the schools were like this. She’s not hidden away in a classroom. She’s in the general education setting,” said her mother, Christina McGregor.
Twirling a bouquet of purple flowers her parents brought for her, Ashlyn said she was not nervous about singing because of how long she practiced. She is planning a repeat performance next year, once again featuring the work of her favorite singer, Miley Cyrus.
“It is the best day of my life. Next talent show, I’m going to sing ‘Best of Both Worlds,’” Ashlyn said.