Aleta Thomas was the second place winner of an essay competition sponsored by, Life’s WORC (www.lifesworc.org) and The Family Center For Autism (www.thefamilycenterforautism.org) in Garden City, New York together with The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation (Huntington, New York). There were 148 high school students from public and private schools in Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk who addressed: WHY AUTISTIC AND DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED PEOPLE BECOME TARGETS OF BULLIES, AND HOW CAN MY SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY PREVENT IT?
Thomas, a tenth grade student at Herrick’s High School, submitted the following winning essay which highlights the importance of volunteering as a way to foster a sense of empathy and community in our youth.
Aleta Thomas, Herricks High School
Why Autistic and Developmentally Disabled Individuals Become Targets of Bullies, and How Can My School and Community Prevent It?
I lean over the table, explaining to Julia the basics of chess, emphasizing that she cannot just knock all my pieces down even when she is losing. Volunteering at the after-school recreation program in my local elementary school, which about fifty students are part of, I am usually not surprised when the supervising adults in the room have to raise their voices to discipline the tired, distracted children.
However it was a very quiet Thursday evening in the large cafeteria when Mrs. C barked from across the room, “Boys, stop that right now! Not appropriate! Not appropriate at all!” By the time I turned around, two fifth-graders were slinking away from Josh, an enthusiastic fifth grader who had some form of autism. Eyewitness accounts from the third-graders nearby confirmed that the boys were mocking Josh by imitating him. It all seemed wrong to me. I worked with those boys every day; they were not bullies. When I pried them for the reasons for their actions, one boy innocently asked me, “What is wrong with Josh?” Nothing is wrong with Josh. He has a disorder called autism. “What is autism?” It shocked me that two well-educated fifth-graders had no clue of the developmental disorder which affects 1 in 68 children throughout the world. Autistic and developmentally disabled individuals become targets as a result of the ignorance of people who attack others, knowingly or not, based on their differences.
The flower of knowledge can be the root of peace in situations where ignorance can destroy the livelihood of a group of people. The school community should better educate younger kids on developmental disorders like autism, because exposure to knowledge destroys the film of ignorance. School assemblies, class discussions, and visits by public officials can all grab the attention of kids to this situation.
Also, encouraging teenagers and tweens to volunteer and help out at community events and programs will foster a sense of empathy in the community. The impenetrable glue that binds a community together can be found at the heart of every children’s program. Over the course of my high school career, I’ve completed over 180 community service hours by helping out at local public institutions.
For example, I volunteer at a Special Needs Catechism program at my local church, and this opportunity has taught me that every child is special and has the right to learn and grow. Over the summer, young adults should be pushed to volunteer and provide services at summer camps intended for autistic and developmentally disabled children. This summer, I have been accepted by the Hofstra REACH program to be a volunteer and aide. These kinds of actions taken by young adults can help prevent bullying and out casting of autistic individuals.
Peter Klein, President of The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation is shown presenting a $2,000 check and the second place certificate to Aleta Thomas.