“In life we take so many things for granted,” said Althoff Catholic senior, Emily Myatt. “The ability to communicate with those around us and to verbalize what is on our minds, for example.”
Emily Myatt, Ellie Martz and McKenzie Rodriguez were among a group of five Althoff Catholic seniors who chose the Illinois Center for Autism’s Special Day School Program for their three-week service projects. According to the Illinois Center for Autism (ICA), one in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. “Fifty percent of our students are non-verbal communicators,” said Rachel Newsome, ICA’s Director of Communications and Development.
Emily, Ellie and McKenzie chose ICA because they wanted to have an eye-opening, impactful experience. “I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone,” said Ellie. “I remember the first day when we took our tour. I felt uncomfortable because this was all new to me. It did not take long for my perspective to change.” Ellie and McKenzie were each assigned to a specific classroom while Emily worked with the music therapist. Ellie quickly learned that the students in her classroom thrived on routine. The game “I-Spy” was popular with the kids. “They find joy in routine and in the little things,” said Ellie. “I was impressed with all of the speech devices and alternative communication methods the staff used with the non-verbal students. I learned that while they communicate differently than I do, the kids are very intelligent and a lot like every other kid in so many ways.”
According to ICA, autism spectrum disorder is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Assigned to ICA’s music therapist, Emily Myatt was able to visit multiple classrooms in her time at the center and was able to interact with children at different behavior and communication levels. “The music therapist I worked with was amazing. She is such a positive person and finds a way to make every kid feel special and important,” said Emily. “It was good to be around someone who you could tell was doing what they are meant to do. She was always present in the moment with the kids.”
“Senior service went by too fast,” said McKenzie. “I absolutely loved my class, I cried when I had to leave.” McKenzie had a special connection with a 7 year-old boy that was not as high functioning as some of the other kids. McKenzie and her new friend had a lot in common. They both enjoyed art and their favorite movie was “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Early on in her service project, McKenzie drew a picture for the boy. When he would become upset, he wanted McKenzie to hold his hand and draw pictures for him. “One of the things I will always remember from my experience is that it is important to be an advocate,” said McKenzie. “There are a lot of stereotypes out there about people with autism spectrum disorders and most of them are wrong. People with autism learn and experience life differently, but they are so similar to the rest of us.”
Having a child on the autism spectrum can be taxing on a family in many ways. “In most cases, only one parent can work because their child with autism requires ongoing parental attention,” said Rachel Newsome. “Siblings have a different lifestyle because of autism. The services we provide go beyond our day school. We offer adult services and client/family support services.”
As Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted autistic author and speaker said, “It is never too late to expand the mind of a person on the autism spectrum.” The Illinois Center for Autism strives to do this in many ways. When clients reach the age of 14 ½, the center begins working with them on vocational training. Many clients move on from the school to ICA’s business entities Pasta Fare and Petals Remembered. “Every day our clients are fighting for people to believe they are capable,” said Rachel. “They inspire me.”
Ellie Martz is in the honors program at Althoff Catholic and is involved in NHS, Student Council, Rotary, basketball and volleyball. She plans to study business law at Missouri State in the fall.
Emily Myatt is in the honors program at Althoff Catholic and is involved in NHS, FCA, Student Council, basketball and volleyball. She plans to study engineering at Ole Miss in the fall.
McKenzie Rodriguez is passionate about art. She is involved in art club and is a member of the living art team at Althoff Catholic in partnership with Art on the Square. She plans to study at Southwestern Illinois College for two years before moving on to a four year university with the goal of becoming a teacher.