Being singled out and made fun of in school can happen over the smallest things, the most miniscule of differences that somehow give rise to teasing, mocking, name-calling, and ostracism that makes going to school an emotional battle. Imagine, then, how much greater the trial would be if those differences were caused by the very real challenge of living with autism—a neurological condition that causes difficulty in speech and non-verbal communication, development of social skills, a tendency to use repetitive behaviors, and the formation of unique strengths and differences that make functioning in an uncomprehending world seem monumental.
So much of the population is in the dark about autism and how to interact with people who have it that they act out of complete lack of comprehension, making fun of those individuals or altogether avoiding them rather than trying to connect. But for brave young people like Rossview Middle School student Sarah Roberts, the answer is not to retreat, but to shine a light on this puzzling disorder and show the world that the autistic community does, indeed, have a voice and a value.
“People mock me because they don’t understand autism correctly, but that’s not going to stop me from doing the things that I want to do and being who I am,” Roberts says, her kind voice confident without baring the merest hint of cockiness so common to kids her age. There is no sense of desire to defy authority in her manner—merely defiance that she will let her diagnosis define her. Rather, she seems to see it as a calling to advocate for others on the spectrum. “This is the way that God made me, and I want to speak for kids like me,” she says.
And indeed she has, as one particular taunting incident fueled her to approach Rossview’s principal, Dr. Laura Barnett, to propose a plan to raise awareness at the school—not only on the part of the staff, but also on the part of the students. Setting the plan into motion in time for Autism Awareness Day, Rossview’s staff wore blue in observance and rolled out a series of lessons for the entire school during an extended advisory period. Faculty, students, and parents benefitted from the initiative, so affected by it that Dr. Barnett received countless thank yous from those whose new understanding started new discussions at home and in the classroom. “I’ve had students, teachers—even the parents of students—come to me and thank me for that. There are students who now feel more understood and less alone in what they’re personally going through and parents who have children who have been struggling and haven’t felt like they can be open about it,” Dr. Barnett observes.
In the aftermath of Rossview’s Autism Awareness project, Roberts has seen more understanding from her fellow students. “I don’t get laughed at as much, and I’m really hoping that they understand me better now,” says the brave middle schooler, whose own diagnosis came at the age of ten after her grandfather noticed certain characteristics in his granddaughter that many others had missed. “Sometimes I have meltdowns and sensory overload, so I’ve learned to take walks or do deep breathing exercises.”
A bright, enthusiastic girl whose willingness to speak about her own challenges, Roberts has since proven to be quite effective in articulating her feelings and personal struggles in a way that makes others understand—and that ability to articulate has made her “legendary” in the local community as well as on Facebook, where an interview with Roberts has gained a staggering number of views. “There’s nothing better than being an advocate,” Roberts says. “It makes me happy to be doing it. It’s oddly satisfying.”
Oddly satisfying, perhaps. But undeniably powerful.