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Students support one another during Autism Awareness Parade

Farmington Press - 5/1/2018

FARMINGTON HILLS - With a cloth chain necklace draped around her neck, Elizabeth Eichbrecht talked about having autism and how being different is empowering.

The Forest Elementary School fourth-grader - who made that necklace for another student with autism as a fidget toy to help calm them - participated in organizing an awareness parade April 27 at the school and through the local neighborhood.

About 440 students - with the help of two police officers - walked for several minutes throughout the neighborhood, and as only elementary school students can, they made their presence known.

Amid the playful shouts and banter, some linked arms and others stopped to take photos. Many sported autism awareness bracelets or leis, and some carried messages on their shirt: "Be kind." Some held flyers that say a person is not less than because they have autism. Many, such as Forest Principal Steve Vercellino, wore blue in honor of Autism Awareness Month.

"In our building we have autism students that attend our school," he said. "Throughout this month, we have been educating everybody on what is autism ? so they can ... understand each other and support each other."

He said the student-driven program was planned in a couple of weeks.

"This is just a great example of what goes on in a lot of our elementary schools ? educating the whole (child). Part of that is social and emotional, as well as academic," he said.

He added that teaching children to appreciate everyone's strengths and challenges is key.

"Seek first for understanding, so that you feel like the more educated you are on differences in people, the more you understand them and get to know them, versus judging (them)," Vercellino said.

Eichbrecht said that when she learned about the awareness month, she knew she wanted to be an advocate.

"I wanted to do something, and I picked this walk ? so it could get more popular and maybe other schools would start to do it," she said.

When asked if she likes walking as a hobby, she said she prefers swimming, which brought a smile to her nearby teacher, Chelsea Marshall.

Marshall, a Forest teacher in an autism self-contained classroom, said that before the walk, she focused on different autism awareness lessons.

"I think the walk is really important because it just helps ... get the kids involved and helps to raise awareness for a population of students that they have in their building and that they might have interactions with," she said, adding that it leads to further discussion about what autism is, "that it is nothing to be afraid of."

Forest fifth-grader Nicholas Holland said that he has a sibling with autism, and he also is a safety for students in Marshall's classroom and walks students into her class.

"It's a role that is really powerful because ? it is helping me become more close with the autism students," Holland said. "I really kind of know what they are like, but it is just really fun to spend time with them."

Holland added that during the autism awareness lessons, he learned through simulation activities that mimicked having autism - he was tasked with answering questions while being distracted and overstimulated. Holland said that people need to be more empathetic.

"It can affect you for life," he said.


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