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West Hartford Boy Featured In Autism Speaks Campaign

Hartford Courant - 4/15/2019

April 15-- Apr. 15--Ten-year-old Milan Bonilla-Cruz already was in the spotlight last year when he published a book about living with autism.

Now, the fourth grade student at Braeburn Elementary is featured in a new Autism Speaks campaign.

Last year, Milan published "Autism & Me" with his former paraprofessional, Allison Butler. Butler, a West Hartford resident, is currently student teaching at Whiting Lane Elementary, which is where she and Milan first met and began to forge a relationship that continues to this day.

The two are currently working on a follow-up book that will include Milan's twin sister. The idea for this book, Butler said, is to compare and contrast the lives of two young students who are at the same -- but different -- points in their lives.

"There are differences, like how she can walk to school by herself now that she is in fourth grade," Butler said. "He would never be allowed to do that. There are little things people don't think about."

The two will attend the Autism Connections conference in Springfield, Massachusetts on April 23, where Butler will present about the book the two wrote together.

Butler said she will talk about the message of the book, which was to try and understand how Milan -- or any student with autism -- sees the world around them.

"I'm trying to teach people that it's more important to understand this from a student's perspective," Butler said. "And they can. If a student is aware, they should be able to say how things make them feel or what helps them the most."

For example, in the first book, Milan said teachers who tried to help him, but didn't understand him, were like zombies to him.

"There's a lot to a kid that we might not realize unless you actually get to know them," Milan said. "School is about work, work, work. There's not enough time to get to know them like you would if you're a paraprofessional or having a one-to-one with them all day."

The first book is available on Amazon and on the Kindle. Milan's mom is also trying to translate the book into Spanish.

Milan said it wasn't that bad having the Autism Speaks camera crew in front of him. The crew traveled to West Hartford from New York to do the shoot and spent two days with Milan, Butler, and his family in his classroom, at his karate class, and at a pizza restaurant.

Butler said he probably couldn't have handled that interaction a few years ago.

"He's definitely learned how to control his emotions," Butler said. "I see a huge change in him now. I feel like now that his book is out and people are understanding him more, he wants to succeed in school more and he's comfortable being at school. It makes me proud of him, because he's come such a long way."

Things are still hard for Milan, though. Big crowds present a particular challenge to him.

"When I'm in a big crowd of people I don't know, I get overwhelmed," Milan said. "When I'm in a crowd of people I do know, I don't get overwhelmed."

Butler said Milan's book has changed the way people view students with autism. And Milan's experience at school has changed for the better, too. He likes doing science projects, writers workshop, and even recess -- which in his first book, he didn't describe as favorably.

"Usually people from different classes come and play with me," Milan said. "It's better. Most of the time, it's fun. Instead of me trying to find someone to play with, the people who want me to play with them come to me. I've got friends who always play with me. They make me happy somehow."


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