Demarest joins other schools to raise autism awareness

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
The fifth-grade class of Adriana Festa. Holding the laptop, from left, Zaid Hamdan, Nicholas Johnson and Jacob Celi, who together created a homeroom slideshow on autism awareness.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — April is Autism Awareness Month. In all Bloomfield elementary schools, lessons are being taught and activities have been planned to raise student awareness of what it means when someone, possibly a classmate, is on the autism spectrum.

At Demarest Elementary, three fifth-grade boys took their lessons a step further. Zaid Hamdan, Jacob Celi and Nicholas Johnson created a laptop slideshow with captions for their homeroom about what autism means to them. It was presented Thursday, April 4.

A second screening, for the benefit of this newspaper, took place on Friday, April 5, in the hallway outside the main office. This was done with the permission of their homeroom teacher, Adriana Festa. The boys were joined by Principal Mary Todaro. Their work was voluntary.

Zaid and Jacob said the slideshow developed from an idea they had to create an “awareness club.” They explained that this would be a club to consider environmental problems, bullying and illnesses.
“Current problems happening in the world,” Nicholas interjected.

Zaid fired up the laptop he had brought.
Slide No. 1 gave a definition of autism which is a broad range of conditions affecting the way a person communicates.
“In a nutshell,” Jacob said, “people with autism — their brains are wired differently.”
Zaid said characteristics of someone on the spectrum could be repetitive movements and rocking back and forth.
“They don’t interact as a normal kid would,” he said.

Nicholas said someone on the spectrum would not recognize facial expressions and the emotions they represented. Because of this, there is a communications gap.

The slides and lettering used the color blue predominantly. Blue is the color of Autism Awareness Month.
The next slide said that autism cannot be successfully diagnosed until a child is at least 2 years old. It was followed by information that someone on the spectrum may have very sensitive hearing.
“A tapping is like a fingernail in the chalk board,” Zaid said.

“They mostly feel like outsiders because they don’t know what’s happening,” Jacob added.
One slide said 24.8 million people have a form of autism. Nick said that was about one in every 280 people.
“When it’s diagnosed, it’s one in 68,” Zaid said.

Further information told the viewer that in 2004 autism affected one in 166 people, but in 2018 that ratio was one in 59 people — an increase in the number of people diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
“The reason it’s on the rise is because it’s genetic,” Zaid said. “And we’re getting better at diagnosing.”
Autism is not contagious, he said.

Nicholas said with the improvements in technology, diagnosing is also done more quickly.
One slide highlighted famous people on the spectrum. It included Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Mozart. This information was not only an encouragement for people on the spectrum, but for their general education classmates as well, to be understanding and patient.

It was known that some historical figures were on the spectrum, Zaid said, because people who were alive at that time passed down biographical information about them. This information is evaluated today.
“Scientists think it’s the way they created out of the box,” he said.

Principal Todaro said there was a good chance that was true.
“If we didn’t have these people, we wouldn’t have a lot of inventions or advancements in the arts,” Zaid said.
Slide No. 8: “Your sincerity is beautiful. Don’t let insincere people tell you otherwise.” The boys said this quote was from the World Autism Day celebration. This year that date was April 2.

Todaro said Bloomfield School District staff members were taking up a collection to contribute to autism awareness. Slide No. 9 named several organizations accepting donations including Autism Speaks.

She said the boys were going to continue their autism awareness campaign. They had plans and the OK for a walk along the Demarest School property before spring break. A flier was already in the works. The event was to be called Autism Walk on Demarest. Zaid said the name was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s Walk on Washington which he and his classmates had been taught.

The final slide, No. 11: “All you need is a voice, to make a change. Don’t let time waste.” With a smile, Jacob said he made up that one.