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Rockwood Youths REACH Out to Increase Awareness, Acceptance of Autism

Three Fenton area students presented a nine-month program concept called The Road to Embrace Autism with Care and Heart (REACH) at Thursday evening's Rockwood School District Board Of Education meeting.

Kids with Autism are just like any other students when it comes to desiring friends and acceptance—and should be given the chance to learn and have a solid educational experience in schools without being bullied or isolated. That's the message delivered by three students at Thursday evening's Rockwood Board of Education meeting held at Crestview Middle School in Ellisville. 

Taylor Baxter, an 11-year-old from Fenton, recently created a group and program called REACH, which stands for The Road to Embrace Autism with Care and Heart. She and her friends, Emily Oster and Kevin Schuller, delivered a presentation to Rockwood board directors Thursday in hopes district officials will consider implementing the REACH program throughout all the district's elementary schools. Oster and Schuller also are 11 years old, and all three will be starting sixth grade this month.

Not only did the three students demonstrate first-hand knowledge at the board meeting about how to incorporate sensitivity to students with disabilities, they proposed a nine-month plan with step-by-step suggestions about what Rockwood elementary school teams could do to implement an awareness program.

This is not the first time Baxter has launched enterprising ways to give back to the community. Last March, she set up a Before it was all over, the lemonade sales generated $500.

Baxter and other Uthoff Valley Elementary School students initiated a youth group last April named Y.E.A.H. (Youth Excited About Helping) to host an event called The idea was the brainchild of Blake Mycoskie who befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet. He started TOMS Shoes with the idea that he would donate a pair of new shoes to needy children for every pair of TOMS shoes purchased. About 50 barefoot kids marched along an asphalt walking trail in Fenton City Park to support the cause on April 5.

Baxter also was one of this year's Rockwood Dreamcatcher recipients.

Baxter said it's been about a year ago that a student "acted in ways" she didn’t understand. She read a book, entitled Mockingbird, which informs people about Autism. She said she became close friends with Uthoff Valley Elementary School classmate Kevin Schuller, who has Asperger's Syndrome.

She said she then realized the importance of educating about why some people act a little differently. It was a simple but very powerful and helpful book, she said.

Schuller said he knew he had Asperger's by the time he was in third grade, but he also has ADHD. "I came home from school upset nearly every day. Kids would take my pencils just to get me upset. I was upset a lot. I tried to hide under my desk. It was hard to finish school work with all that going on. All schools are not sensitive to the needs of kids with Autism. But after Taylor and I became good friends, we knew knowledge can allow relationships to develop."

Baxter said Thursday night that she really thought Schuller was getting picked on at school, after she began to be more aware. "We thought it would be good to have all kids learn about each other, like the bullying program. I wanted it to be proactive not reactive. After we got ideas together, we asked friends what to do," she said.

"Education at an early age can make a huge difference in our lives, because every kid wants to be accepted and understood. But, most of all, it's about friendship."

After Schuller did a presentation for fellow students about Asperger's, Oster said she realized he was "not that different" in that, like her, he wanted to have close friends and just to be accepted.

She said she realized everyone can learn to be more considerate. Thursday evening, she gave the example of students not tapping on the chairs of students with disabilities, especially during tests. She said they also learned better how to include all friends at recess, when Schuller did not want to play a game but rather wanted to be the referee. "That still makes him part of the game."

"None of this (REACH) would have happened without the book and Kevin. We all talked and thought kids of all ages could be educated about it," said Oster.

Their proposed plan includes the following activities:

  1. September = M&Ms demonstration; speaker to kick off Rockwood program; promote Walk Now For Autism Speaks.
  2. October = Walk Now promotions; posters in school; take home fliers; formulate school teams.
  3. November = demonstrate sensory processing differences, such as putting sandpaper in shirts as tags, playing loud music and writing with non-dominant hands. Schuller said kids will see how hard it is to focus when one notices every single thing going on. He said while most kids are able to tune out those barriers, children with disabilities cannot.
  4. December = read aloud books; Abilities Awareness Day guest speaker.
  5. January = schoolwide assemblies; include book references at assemblies.
  6. February = guest speaker for grade level or classrooms.
  7. March = Hats On Day, money donated to local autism group.
  8. April = bulletin board displays for Autism Awareness Month; displays in library, incorporate art teachers; change porch lights to blue on April 2.
  9. May = make books about autism available for classroom free time to demonstrate this difficulty.

The three organizing students said the goals of incorporating REACH into all Rockwood schools, for all grade levels, would be so students with disabilities will not be teased or bullied by classmates, and so that they will be invited to play, accepted and included in games.

"Kids with Autism may seem different, but they just wanted to be accepted for who they are," said Schuller.

"We’re all just kids that like to have fun. When I grow up, there also will be people with disabilities. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and to have friends," said Baxter.

Rockwood board director Bill Brown, said a television program called Parenthood covers disabilities in an effective way. "It deals with exactly these same issues," he said.

After the presentation, Rockwood board director Sherri Rogers asked Schuller about the goal of a demonstration with M&Ms. He said the point was that even with all of M&M colors, when one bites into the middle, they’re all chocolate. "They look different on the outside, but on the inside, they are the same."

For Rockwood-recommended reference materials about Asperger's, Autism and other matters pivotal to raising children, click here.

Editor's Note:  Asperger’s Syndrome falls under the high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Corri Hoppe August 16, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Wow. The principals aren't educated? They handle all discipline and Autism Spectrum Disorders include many behaviors that serve as an attempt to communicate. I'm curious to know when they plan to educate their principals? Julie, do you have any idea of how many students with autism or Asperger's Syndrome attend schools in the Rockwood School District?
Julie Brown Patton August 16, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Corri Hoppe, I think Janet Strate meant educate the principals about the particular new REACH program, as brought forward by the three students. I will inquire about your question.
Corri Hoppe August 16, 2012 at 06:12 PM
Thanks for clarifying, Julie. That makes much more sense.
Corri Hoppe August 18, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Julie, I had a thought that I wanted to share. So many parents (myself included) experience a huge shift in our lives when our young ones are diagnosed with a spectrum disorder. Many of us turn to educating ourselves so we have the knowledge and tools we need to meet a variety of needs. My point is that maybe parent volunteers could help when the REACH program is fully developed. I know several parents who would be more than happy to become involved in such a positive program. Also, in regards to the TV program - I wasn't aware of it, and I don't know that households with typical children would even see a need to tune in. To reach out to all of the students I think that incorporating REACH into the schools would provide a better understanding, as it allows for personal connection for all students. As far as operating costs, those of us with children with many diagnoses have been involved in fundraising events and could provide help as well.
Julie Brown Patton August 18, 2012 at 03:45 AM
All good ideas, Corri. We'll have to monitor the progress of REACH now that the school year is under way. Also, please check back to Patch this weekend regarding a two-part interview with a woman from Wildwood who leads the way in helping those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

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