Courier-Post Staff CHERRY HILL
recently watched a video created with love and concern by Christy
Carlson and Debbie Schmidt, parents of autistic children.
They not only watched. Some students
participated in the production while others played an interactive
role following each screening.
As a result, students got insight into what
it's like to have the neurological disorder with no known cure -- a
perception that could make them and their families more likely to
join a local walk to raise money for autism research in June.
To prepare for the upcoming Walk Now for
Autism, Carlson and Schmidt decided to get the whole school involved
with their video.
Thirteen fifth-graders at Woodcrest
participated in the video, which took several weeks to prepare.
About seven minutes long, it was narrated by Schmidt's son Jordan,
11. The Woodcrest fifth-grader has Asperger syndrome, a
high-functioning form of autism.
is a successful student in his inclusion classroom at Woodcrest,
where he learns side by side with typically developing students,
including Carlson's 11-year-old daughter, Katie, 11, who helped make
"I enjoyed doing it. It's fun to teach other people about
autism so they can be more understanding and don't stare,"
Katie said. Her brother, Erik, 6, also has autism. He is taught in a
self-contained classroom at
At the end of April, which is Autism Awareness Month, Carlson and
Schmidt showed the video to every grade level at the school,
tailoring subsequent discussion for each age group.
For kindergarten children, Schmidt and Carlson relied on the video
and a few examples to explain the disorder. For the older
youngsters, the moms tried role-playing to get them to see life from
a different perspective -- the perspective of one of their autistic
classmates who might be coping with heightened senses, difficulty
with social skills and communication, and perseveration -- the
tendency to obsess on a particular subject.
Students were surrounded by loud sounds of drilling, airplanes and
cars, chirping birds, sirens, barking, crying, even elevator music
annoying to most people but intolerable for many with autism. They
got nervous when someone tried crowding them, but learned that
people with autism might not understand the concept of
"personal space" that most take for granted.
They were asked to react to the idea of getting
a computer game versus getting a sweater knitted by a great aunt. "Your
faces tell a story. But if someone has autism, you can't tell the
story behind their faces," Carlson said.
Students learned there are different levels of autism. People with
Asperger's, such as
, often are repetitious when they converse. Like
many autism sufferers,
has a high pain threshold. When he broke his pinkie finger many
years ago, it took hours for anyone to notice because
didn't complain. His mother said
can pull out his baby teeth before they are ready to fall out
without feeling anything.
"It's the wiring that's a little different. But I just knew
could do so many things that were amazing," his mother said.
The goal was to raise awareness and empathy. "Sometimes it
takes a little more patience to be friends with someone with autism.
But autism is a big-time thing and there's no medicine to treat
it," Schmidt said.
By asking questions they may have previously felt embarrassed to
raise, Woodcrest students learned although autism was
"discovered" in the 1940s, it has probably existed far
knew what it was. But from what we know about people's behavior in
the past, we can guess that they had autism," Carlson said.
Among the likely candidates are Thomas
Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Albert
Einstein, Henry Ford and Bill Gates.
It isn't just famous autistic people who have
special talents, Schmidt said.
"People with autism are very special. Just
because they think a little differently doesn't make them right or
wrong," she explained.
Four out of five autistic people are male.
Although its cause is unknown, autism is recognized as the fastest
growing serious developmental disorder in the
, with government statistics suggesting a growth rate of 10 percent
to 17 percent each year.
Despite the increase, it remains one of the
least-funded disorders in the nation. Out of the National Institute
of Health's 2005 $29 billion budget, only $100 million went to
Schmidt explained that genetics can play a role in determining who
has autism -- Todd Schmidt,
's father, realized at 32 that as a child he experienced many of the
same challenges his son now has, and Erik's maternal grandfather
believes he, too, is exhibiting symptoms.
But the environment also is seen increasingly
as a factor. Schmidt said today one in 150 American children is
autistic, but the figure was one in 10,000 when
was diagnosed eight years ago.
"It's not contagious, so you can't catch
it from anyone,"
Students wanted to know how they could make
friends with autistic children who don't talk much. "You
have to be really patient," Carlson said. Woodcrest
students who didn't know Jordan and others with autism well before
seeing the video and participating in the program came away with new
"I learned that most people are not always perfect, and you
shouldn't judge people for the way they are," fifth-grader
Kadejra Grayson-Groom, 10, said. Added
Amanda Lewis, 10, another fifth-grade student, "They can't do
some stuff, but they've replaced what they can't do with something
no one else can do." Fifth-grader
Lydia Huber, 11, agreed. "They
have different abilities. They're different, but they're still
people," she said.
Said Schmidt, "What we've done here is create a bubble of
awareness. When we spoke to the fourth-graders, one of them got up
and said, "Yes, I have autism.' This is a testament to what
this program has done."
Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or firstname.lastname@example.org