As I reflect on when I started becoming interested in connecting with people with special needs, I think it was the summer of 2008. I was nine years old and went with my family to a camp called Tyler Place. We had attended Tyler Place for a few summers and for me it was always memorable. Little did I know that this year would be extra special.
In this camp, we were grouped for activities by age. In my group, there was a girl in a wheel chair, who always sat by herself at a booth during lunch with her aide. I assumed she wanted to sit alone, because she never came to sit with the rest of us. One day, I was curious, and hesitantly asked if I could sit with them. The girl’s aide replied yes, and I learned that that girl in the wheelchair’s name was Jaime, and that she had Cerebral Palsy. I learned that she could not speak but communicated using hand signals. I began interacting with Jaime more and more, going to the pool with her and catching her at the end of the waterslide, helping her jump on the trampoline, and spending time with her outside of the camp activities. After seeing my interaction with Jaime, the other girls in our group realized “Oh, we CAN hang out with her,” and started including her in activities. I really enjoyed spending time with Jaime. Just because communicating was not her strong suit did not mean she couldn’t be a friend. That was really the first time I realized that most people do not look past a special need and get to know the person – I almost did not. If I had not been curious that day, I most likely would have missed the opportunity to make a friend. I think this is what motivated me to want to connect with people with special needs and to get to know who they are.
Since then, I have been working with people with special needs through organizations such as the YMCA, the Friendship Circle, Intensive Therapeutics, The Children’s Specialized Hospital and my synagogue.
When I had the chance to take on an independent study project at my school, the opportunity to make a tool for teens was something I really wanted to accomplish. In school specifically, I noticed that many of my classmates ignored their peers with autism. Not to be mean, but because they did not understand what was “wrong”. They did not know what to say because they did not understand what was different. I wanted to change that! I thought that if people knew a little bit more about autism, they would be less judgmental and be more likely to go up to someone with a special need and interact. And so, I created “A Teen’s Guide to Autism.”
When I decided to create the film, I wanted it to be interesting, and of course accurate. In order for this project to be effective, I focused greatly on making sure it was entertaining and relatable to everyday life with “how would you feel” situations so that teens especially would be interested and could relate. All of us – people with autism and people who are neuro typical – all react differently to the same emotions. I tried to make that clear and point out things people with and without autism do that are similar rather than focusing on the differences. I wanted to get out the message to other teens that just because someone has autism and may have challenges in one area, does not mean that they are not a person with whom you could become a good friend, is bright, or has something positive to contribute every day.
What I did not focus on while making the film is that these misconceptions were not only occurring at Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield, NJ, but were occurring all over. Since releasing the film in September of 2013 it has been seen by over 76,000 people on YouTube and shared by thousands throughout the country and overseas. It is being incorporated into anti-bullying programs in New Jersey and beyond. The film has been shown to students at various universities and has been used widely as a tool to support inclusion in our community. As well, it is being used by The Children’s Specialized Hospital for presentations on autism and related areas. I have been speaking at schools throughout the country using the film as a tool to teach acceptance. These efforts not only allow me to advocate for autism awareness, and acceptance, but also allow me to communicate to teenagers the message that you are never too young to make a difference. If you are passionate about something, there is so much that you can accomplish.
For my work on the film, I recently received the honor of being selected as a 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipient, and I am so grateful to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for giving me this opportunity to further my vision for helping others. Receiving this award is not only an honor, it’s also a validation of the importance and potential of our work; this award helps me to carry on the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, which means to repair the world, and work to inspire others to make a real difference. I am looking forward to meeting my fellow recipients and celebrating this honor at a special awards luncheon in San Francisco on Monday, August 22, 2016.
I am so thrilled with the support and positive feedback I have received. I definitely plan on continuing to spread the message of acceptance to my peers, and present my film to as many people as possible, because as I state in the film, “People are interesting, people are funny, and people are worth the effort.”
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