Students take center stage at Autism Awareness event

April 18, 2018

AMHERST — A small crowd gathered around the television at the Amherst Regional High School library as Hoobastank’s “The Reason” blared from the speaker. In the screen, a high school student shared his story of autism, as he is seen doing everyday mundane tasks, like playing the piano.

“I have autism in a good way,” he said.

He was one of handful of students that pre-recorded a presentation for the Autism Awareness and Acceptance Night. A panel of current students and panel of alumni also spoke in front of roughly 50 people.

“April is Autism Awareness month and to celebrate that, we want our students share their experiences and listen tonight,” said Kathy Olsen, special education teacher at ARHS, and coordinator of Academic Individualized Mainstream Support Program (AIMS), a specialized program for students with autism.

Both panels and the presentation occurred simultaneously using different corners of the library. For many in the audience, it was nostalgic of high school as Olsen instructed them to divvy up into three groups and rotate to each corners.

On the far side, recent ARHS graduates returned from college to share their experience and fielded questions about fitting in in a new environment. Despite being the smallest fish in the pond, many said they had little to no trouble finding friend groups that support or barely notice their disability.

By the entrance, current students each presented opening statements, then took questions.

“I always worried about fitting in, but I realized that acceptance and self-advocacy is way, way, way more important,” said Iman Pasha, a current student at ARHS. In response to whether the diagnosis will affect her everyday life, she said, “Screw it! I can do anything.”

While living in Cairo, Iman said that she was ostracized by the school, from her peers to administrators.

Iman’s mother and an assistant professor of journalism at UMass Amherst, Shaheen Pasha, kept Iman’s diagnosis a secret from her until a year and a half ago in order to reject labeling her. Through research, Iman discovered for herself that she is autistic and confirmed with Shaheen during a car ride. Iman also spoke out during the walkout in the aftermath of Parkland shooting.

One in 68 children in U.S. are affected by autism, according to National Autism Association and assisting these children provides many challenges since every individuals experience differently.

Katie Drumm, the program manager of Autism Connections in Easthampton, said that these events are useful for giving youth a platform to speak while providing families with resources. Formerly called Community Resources with People with Autism in 1989, the program merged with Pathlight Group, based in Springfield and serves communities of Western Mass.

“The Pioneer Valley continues to impress me on how everyone is so eager to help each other out,” said Drumm. “This is a problem that takes a village. You need support from your teachers, your doctors and your neighbors.”