HUNTERSVILLE – Bradley Middle School student Ryleigh Fitzgibbons is no ordinary girl.
When she meets people, she drills them with questions – what’s your name, what’s your last name, what’s your favorite “Fraggle Rock” character, etc. If others are nearby, she’ll quiz them on the answers she just heard.
Anyone unaware of Ryleigh’s autism may not know how to respond or understand that such behavior is her way to self-stimulate, or “stim.”
Stimming is a repetitive body movement and often a coping mechanism for those with autism. It can manifest in various ways, including the flapping of hands, rocking, spinning, and repeating words or phrases.
These abnormal behaviors can make it difficult for Ryleigh and other autistic students to feel comfortable at school.
When Bradley Middle School Dean of Students Leisa Christians noticed students didn’t know how to act around their autistic peers, she teamed with another teacher to educate them about the condition through a week-and-a-half unit.
Walls built with the fear of the unknown were torn down. Friendships were constructed in their place.
“We started to see the perspective of our students change,” Christians said. She was a sixth-grade teacher the first year the unit was taught. “They weren’t as scared if they saw stimming in the hallway … Some students started to ask if they could help.”
Over the past few years, some eighth-grade students have become helpers in exceptional children’s classrooms, working with autistic peers one-on-one and building the school’s reverse inclusion program.
Prior to her participation in the program, eighth-grader Cassidy Kennedy didn’t know what to do when she saw a peer stimming.
“Once I learned about them, and I got to talk to them when they weren’t (stimming), I knew that I shouldn’t be afraid of them,” she said.
This is the second year Cassidy is helping in exceptional children’s classrooms. She’s following in sister Melanie’s footsteps. Melanie spent about 20 minutes in the mornings and 45 minutes in the afternoons helping Michelle Becker’s exceptional children’s classroom when she was in eighth grade. Now a Hough High freshman, Melanie continues to volunteer Friday afternoons at Bradley Middle, which has 22 students with autism.
While students often help with teaching, they also learn from their autistic peers, especially when it comes to accepting others for who they are.
“We like to say we don’t judge anyone … then you hear kids talking about kids all the time,” Melanie said. “These kids are so accepting of everyone.”
Regular education peers are more likely to comment on Cassidy’s unusual hair, which is long but buzzed on one side. Her autistic peers either don’t think about it, or if they comment on it, it’s positive.
“It just reminds me that I have to be more like that and not just look at someone and just automatically think what kind of person they are,” she said.
Ryleigh’s mom, Kelli, fought for words as she explained the benefits her daughter has experienced because of the program.
“She came home last year when this first started and said, ‘Mommy, I have friends,’” Kelli’s voice shook as tears formed in her eyes. “There’s no words. She was 13, and that’s the first time she ever said it.”
Instead of being made fun of, Ryleigh has friends she talks with outside of school and talks about while at home, Kelli said.
“They accepted her for who she was,” she said. “They weren’t judging her, and they weren’t nervous.”
When Becker speaks with sixth-grade students, she has the student helpers tell sixth-graders about not only the work they do, but also about the friendships they make. Students in the program will get together and do different activities over the summer, Becker said.
“To me, it’s more important to teach the social aspects of life because that is what is going to make their lives easier when they leave my classroom – how to approach life with the coping skills to cope or even to overcome their disability because it’s possible,” she said.
About 35 eighth-grade students that help in Becker’s classroom. About the same amount of sixth graders help during open gym time.
Seeing the impact made at Bradley Middle, Melanie, with the help of others, wants to expand the program to the high school level.
“It’s so important, and it’s not just important for my kid with autism,” Kelli said. “It’s important for the other children because autism is permeating our society.”
In 2008, one in 88 children were diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, it was one in every 150 children.
“It’s epidemic,” Kelli continued. “You’re not going to be in a store and not see a child with autism. The more awareness there is for our children, the more appropriate they’ll be treated in society.”