By Alexis Morley
There aren’t a lot of things you can accomplish in just 90 seconds. However, if you’re Nerissa Morrow, a minute-and-a-half is all you need to start breaking down some common misconceptions about autism.
Morrow, a senior at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, is hoping to increase awareness and acceptance of autism by creating a short video campaign. The video features personal stories and messages from students in Evergreen’s Social Communication Integration Program (SCIP classroom) to educate others about what it is like to have autism—in their own words.
The video campaign will also feature messages from neurotypical students, holding up a whiteboard with their name and “I pledge to be accepting.” Once completed, the video will be broadcast on the school’s weekly newscast announcements, as well as added to the school district website. Morrow, who has a brother with autism, has also teamed up with Vancouver-based non-profit Autism Empowerment. The completed video will be added to the organization’s YouTube channel and shared with other area high schools.
“The better people understand, the better they can empathize, learn from and teach others what they know about autism, and how autism looks differently across the spectrum,” says McKenzie Musick Cooley, a teacher in the SCIP classroom. “I think there is a lot of misunderstanding, outside of the autism world, about ‘what autism looks like’—when really, no two students are alike!”
Morrow balances school work with a strong commitment to motivate others to accept those with differences. It started with some frustrations witnessed in the classroom, she says. Classmates with autism would speak up to correct a teacher’s simple oversights, causing some annoyance among neurotypical peers.
“I knew what [autism] looked like, but other kids didn’t know,” she adds. “When the kids with ASD would say something, other kids would get annoyed, roll their eyes.” The reactions made her angry, but she also understood it stems from a lack of understanding, rather than malicious behavior.
“I don’t think we should blame them for not knowing,” she says. However, instead of letting her frustration fester, she decided to educate others about autism—and the video campaign project was born. “Nerissa is reaching a population of adolescents who will soon generalize their knowledge and acceptance of autism into the adult world,” Musick Cooley says.
The students’ understanding and empathy will transfer from the classroom to their everyday life: in their workplace; in line at a grocery store witnessing a child’s meltdown; or one day possibly passing down their autism acceptance and education to their children, she adds.
“The importance of shattering old myths, as we start over with a new way of thinking, and normalizing the beautiful differences that autism brings to the table is immeasurable,” Musick Cooley says.
The video campaign took about a month to plan with a completion date planned for mid-April, however there have been some bumps in production. Originally, Morrow paired with other Vancouver high schools to reach more students and share more stories. However, original footage was accidentally deleted.
Although difficult, Morrow didn’t have trouble rounding up participants.
“It was a lot easier to get people to be in the videos then I thought,” she says. “It’s a little personal, [so] I didn’t know how much people from the SCIP class would want to participate.” However, she says she was pleasantly surprised to find at least four students with autism from her school were willing to share their stories and messages with others.
Another benefit of the video campaign has been Morrow’s chance to expand her own understanding of autism. Her recent alliance and volunteer opportunities with Autism Empowerment have brought a greater understanding of adults with autism and the opportunities they have. Morrow volunteered at the group’s annual Egg Hunt for Acceptance of All Abilities, soliciting other classmates to join her.
Autism Empowerment also offered support in Morrow’s high school by providing 1,200 bracelets with the message “Autism Empowerment=Acceptance of all Abilities” to distribute at the school’s spirit day assembly. Morrow supports the message 100 percent, saying her main goal for her video is to promote “being more accepting in general. If someone has autism they shouldn’t have to come out and say it. Just be more compassionate.”
The students in the SCIP classroom enjoyed having a platform to share how living with autism affects them.
“They expressed to me that they felt that they were able to finally explain to their peers why working in a group might be hard for them, how they feel when sitting in a loud, crowded assembly and how hard it was for them to learn how to talk to a partner in class,” Musick Cooley says. “This video allowed my students to practice their metacognitive skills as they looked at what they wanted others to really know about them.”
As for other students at Evergreen and beyond, Musick Cooley says “just by having someone reach out and say to you ‘This is how I learn best, this is how I feel and I think we can do this together’ is a pretty powerful thing. Young people are far more empathetic and flexible than we give them credit for—they just need to be given the opportunity and platform to sharpen these crucial life skills.”
There are plans for growth and expansion of the project to have multiple, more in-depth videos about how to interact and recognize someone with autism. The current video campaign focuses more on general education and personal stories of being on the spectrum.
“Right now, I don’t know how many people know what autism is,” Morrow says. “I just think we need to talk about it more and acknowledge it.” She reports noticing some changes that indicate systemic change in her high school.
For example, “most kids at my school didn’t know about the egg hunt put on by Autism Empowerment,” she says. “However, we had a lot of volunteers this year, and many of them were thankful to volunteer and excited to [come out again] next year.”
Evergreen High School has also started a unified soccer team, which integrates both students with special needs and neurotypical ones. Also, more students with autism are being included in the school’s leadership classes, serving as buddies and helping plan for future school activities.
“Our school has made it more of a focus,” Morrow says. As for district-wide changes, Morrow hopes other schools increase the amount of attention that autism gets.
“I hope other schools do similar things, talk about it at assemblies, make notice of it in their announcements,” she concludes. “I just think we need to talk about and acknowledge it more.”
Alexis Morley is a second year speech-language pathology Masters student at Pacific University. In the past she’s worked in Portland State University’s Autism & Child Language Disorders Lab as well as served as a volunteer with Autism Society of Oregon. She has previously written content for Seattle Magazine and InsideJobs.com.