With the number of autism diagnoses increasing in the U.S., many schools and businesses have launched initiatives that help the autistic community learn and work in an environment that best suits their individual needs. Furthermore, adults are becoming more conscious of their peers’ specific needs, and are taking extra strides to ease their anxieties to help them feel comfortable. Although adults are fully aware of the growing autistic population, it is important for young children to be introduced to the disorder, and learn how to treat their peers with respect.
KidSpeak, an interactive puppet workshop, is one program that introduces autism spectrum disorders to young children. The workshop is conducted by a group from the Developmental Evaluation Center of Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse. Children are introduced to a set of characters that help them put a face on autism disorders, to better understand others who may initially appear a bit different to them.
The presentation focuses on two characters, Kerry and Sally, a boy and girl who each have autism but showcase different signs and behaviors. Mary Warren, one of the puppeteers, states, “I bet the kids at [the elementary school] would be good friends to someone with autism. I heard they choose to shine.”
When she first introduces the characters, Warren informs the children that Sally gets nervous in new social situations. Meanwhile, Kerry likes to keep a schedule of what he is doing, and can feel uncomfortable when a situation arises out of the ordinary. When around the children, the first character, Kerry, spoke quickly, talking about his favorite games. Sally, on the other hand, sat rather quietly, but would hum, rock back and forth, and wave her favorite toy. The instructors would explain to the children that individuals with autism can showcase very different behaviors, and their specific actions are what they individually do to help calm themselves.
Furthermore, Warren pointed out that Sally enjoys communicating through her iPad, using a “Yes/No” board, or writing things down, and does not like to communicate verbally. Warren states, “Sally can talk, but she can’t get the words out at the wright time. Even though she can’t always talk, she does have things she wants to say, and she does have ways to say them.” This enables children to be more inclusive of their non-verbal (or limited) peers, and to have the patience to try new, creative ways to communicate.
The group also discussed how individuals with autism may be sensitive to certain things, such as light, sound, and touch. Furthermore, they may get upset more easily, and can display heightened emotions. The group had the children partake in a science experiment, mixing “anger powder” in a glass of water, causing it to boil, symbolizing a meltdown. Mardie Ninno, one of the instructors, states, “We want you to remember what that feels like. If you see a friend, maybe you could let them know you know how they feel. Think about ways you can make them feel better.”
The program performs across central New York for young children in elementary schools and daycares. With 1 in 68 children being diagnosed with autism, this program is one of many that helps children understand that their autistic peers deserve to be treated with as much respect as anyone else, and can make amazing lifelong friends.