The Talon

Student Takes Initiative to Promote Autism Awareness and Acceptance

Photo Credit: Amber De Fere

Photo Credit: Amber De Fere

Mary Hammarlund, Staff Writer

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Every April, people around the world observe Autism Awareness Month. While most people are somewhat familiar with autism, many people do not understand the condition well. As a result, there is a great deal of stigma surrounding the condition. In order to fight the stigma and educate others, a high school student has taken it upon herself to teach others about autism.

 

Mary Hammarlund, a sophomore at Sheboygan Falls High School, created a visual presentation, and prepared a speech for middle school students. Over the course of three days, she spoke to eight different classes. In Hammarlund’s lesson, she taught her audience what autism is, talked about certain traits associated with the condition, described her personal experiences with autism, explained the significance of the puzzle piece, and debunked common myths. She also explained the differences between a temper tantrum and a meltdown: a tantrum is caused by a child’s wants, and a meltdown is a response to overwhelming situations and excessive stimulation. She clarified that every autistic person is affected differently and that autistic people want to be treated like everyone else.

 

Hammarlund was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, when she was five years old. When she was growing up, she struggled with frequent meltdowns caused by her hypersensitivity. She struggled to connect with her peers and felt misunderstood. “I always knew I was different,” Hammarlund explained, “I always knew that I was more sensitive than other students, and I did not understand why. When my parents told me that I have Asperger’s, I began to learn about it, and everything made sense to me.” She continued, “For years afterwards, I thought it was something that I had to keep to myself. I did not think anyone would understand and would see my autism as a defect. I would have loved to have another person who knew what I was going through explain it to my classmates and help me to see that I had no need to feel ashamed.”

 

This was not the first time that Hammarlund has talked to students about autism. When she was in fifth grade, she stood in front of her class alongside her special education teacher so she could teach them about herself and how autism affects her. She did this to help her peers understand her when she started to feel like an outcast. This presentation was so well received that a few other teachers asked the duo to talk to their class as well. A few years later, Hammarlund decided to create a presentation for Autism Awareness Month that she would present independently. She has repeated the process every year since. “I was in eighth grade when I decided to prepare a presentation. The idea came to me one day while I was in my health class,” Hammarlund describes. “I thought that by spreading awareness and sharing my experiences, other autistic people will be better understood and accepted for who they are. And who is better to teach kids about autism than a kid with autism?”

 

Students took a lot out of Hammarlund’s presentation. Tammy Huenink, a science teacher at Sheboygan Falls Middle School, commented on how much her students learned from the presentation. “My students took away from [presentation] that students want to be accepted for who they are and not to be changed. That autism is found more often in boys than girls, that students with autism want friends, but may struggle to get friends, and now they will look a little different at that situation. [They learned] the difference between tantrums and meltdowns, how an interest for a person with autism becomes a passion. [How they] want to learn everything. We now understand that many people think students with autism are dumb [while] in reality they’re very smart, and the students liked that [Hammarlund] explained the [significance of] puzzle pieces.”

 

Gwen Morgan, an eighth grade student who watched Hammarlund’s presentation, also stated that she absorbed a lot of information. “I learned that there are more boys with autism then there are girls with autism,” Morgan says. “Another thing I learned is that when they find an interest in something, they get attached to it and they learn everything about it. I thought that was really cool.”

 

Hammarlund’s mother, Amy Hammarlund, has also commented on her daughter’s advocacy and how far she has come over the years. “When she was in middle school, she would panic at the thought of being in front of the class, even in a group,” she reflects. “Now, she stands up in front and proudly explains what it is like to have Aspergers, what it means to her, and even takes questions at the end. When she was six, her teacher and special ed team had the task of telling us our girl was on the spectrum. We were devastated.  I thought our dreams for her were over. That definitely isn’t the case, she has come so far and has proved us wrong over and over again!”

 

“I hope that I have made an impact on these students and made it easier for other autistic students down the road,” Hammarlund says. “I know how it feels to be the person that nobody wants to work with, and I know how much it hurts to be left out. Awareness leads to acceptance, so I hope that by spreading awareness, I can make it easier for other autistic people.”

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