When Karen Tuohy’s children, Sean and Bridget, were younger, she took them to the public playground—where they usually got strange looks. “The other parents would pull their children away from us,” explains Tuohy, “and I’d hear the barely under-the-breath comments. I won’t even mention the reactions when one or both of my children would have a meltdown. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”
As Sean and Bridget began classes under the supervision of staff at the Delaware Autism Program’s Brennen School, Tuohy realized her children would not be subjected to these reactions anymore, at least not during school hours. “I felt relief,” sighs Tuohy.
A few years ago, the second-grade team at Heritage Elementary approached Tuohy and asked if she would present to their classes a lesson on autism awareness. “As with all schools in the Red Clay Consolidated School District,” says Tuohy, “we have students with all types of abilities. Remembering my own children’s experience in the park, I agreed to come up with a kid-friendly approach that included acceptance of people who are different as well as awareness of autism and its effect on the family.”
Now, every April, which is Autism Awareness Month, Tuohy gives her presentation to Heritage Elementary’s second-grade classes. She begins by showing an Organization for Autism Research (OAR) poster called Kids with autism might…. and reading a few of the noted characteristics, such as “Have a lot of energy,” “Have a great memory,” and “Giggle or smile a lot.”
“When I ask the students if they know anyone who has these characteristics,” notes Tuohy, “every hand shoots up. So, I discuss a few more. In all the years and in all the classrooms I’ve given my presentation, the students always come to the same conclusion: Children with autism are not all that different—which means children with autism can succeed just like anyone else.
”To reinforce this conclusion, Tuohy shows a CBSNEWS video featuring Jason McElwain who, back in 2006, was a teenager with autism and a member of his high school’s basketball team. During a highly competitive game, with only four minutes remaining, McElwain’s team was down. The coach put him in. And McElwain proceeded to score 20 points—including six difficult three-point shots—to win the game.
“The students love this video,” smiles Tuohy. “They get so excited that they end up jumping up and down and cheering for Jason just like the crowd at the game. They clap and stomp when Jason gets lifted onto his teammates’ shoulders. The boys always ask ‘Can we watch that again?’”
Tuohy ends the presentation by handing out a coloring page of an autism awareness ribbon. For students who want more information, she also hands out a booklet called Growing Up Together. “This booklet is a wonderfully kid-friendly resource,” says Tuohy. “I highly recommend it, not only for its simple language but also for the ideas on how to be a friend to someone with ASD. Many children would like to reach out but are not sure how. This booklet could get them started.”
For a copy of Growing Up Together, visit bridges4kids.org/pdf/Growing_Up_Booklet.pdf. For more on the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), visit researchautism.org.
Sun contributor Karen Tuohy is the parent of two children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a long-time volunteer coordinator of Autism Delaware’s weekly bowling program, and works as a special educator at Heritage Elementary School.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the April–June 2015 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.