Washington Elementary Highlights Autism Acceptance Month

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Burbank Board of Education member Dr. Emily Weisberg, George Washington Elementary Principal Brandi Young, and LEAP Teacher Chandra Collins (in the back from left to right) celebrate students’ diversity with their artworks of infinity symbols and butterflies. (Photo Courtesy Chandra Collins)

Staff and students at George Washington Elementary School are highlighting Autism Acceptance Month during April, along with Burbank Unified School District and schools around the U.S. and world.

Burbank Chamber

“In the past, April was referred to as Autism Awareness Month, but the shift towards Autism Acceptance instead began last year,” explained Washington Elementary Language Enriched Autism Program (LEAP) teacher Chandra Collins, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders in her specialized class.

“Raising awareness is a passive approach to teaching people about autism, while trying to increase acceptance is a more active and inclusive approach,” she added. “By changing one word the focus becomes how we are all diverse yet integral parts of society.”

“Whether you or your children are aware, there are most likely autistic students at every school in Burbank,” Collins continued, noting that Burbank Unified currently has three LEAP classes that cover multiple grades each at George Washington and Bret Harte Elementary Schools.

“These students are an important part of each of these school communities, and allow a perfect bridge to educating every student and staff member at these schools,” she said.

Students from Theresa White’s first grade class share their infinity symbol designs. (Photo Courtesy Chandra Collins)

For several years, Collins has visited every classroom at Washington Elementary to talk about autism with neuro-typical students.

She talks with the students about “what they may see or hear from the LEAP students, how they are the same, and that they should treat them just as kindly and respectfully as everyone else. This first step dramatically changed the overall culture at Washington into one of acceptance of all differences.”

“Those of us that have these specialized programs on our campuses are fortunate to offer such a rich, inclusive and diverse campus to our students,” commented Washington Elementary Principal Brandi Young. “Students have ample opportunities to learn about autism, accept students with differences and demonstrate inclusivity during recess, lunch, music classes, assemblies and other school events. Washington students and staff take pride in Autism Acceptance Month each year.”

Washington Elementary celebrates Autism Acceptance Month with a variety of activities. On April 1, the entire school took a photo wearing bright colors representing the rainbow of neurodiversity at the school. The LEAP staff share resources with all of the teachers to use in their classrooms throughout the month, including videos explaining what autism is “in a kid-friendly and compassionate way.”

“One of the videos, ‘Amazing Things Happen,’ is especially popular because it focuses on the idea that everyone’s brain works differently,” Collins explained. “Every student at Washington is given the opportunity to color and decorate an infinity symbol or a rainbow. These then line the hallways for the month, reminding everyone that differences are what make the world more interesting.”

Edith Chavez, Washington’s At-Risk Interventionist, reads a story about autism to Julie Lambert’s TK class. (Photo Courtesy Chandra Collins)

At-Risk Interventionist Edith Chavez also visited some primary classes and read stories “about autism and being a good friend.”

Bret Harte Elementary School also hosts similar activities throughout the month of April.

“We are so excited to be celebrating Autism Acceptance Month at Bret Harte!” commented Harte Elementary LEAP teacher Cassidy Gavin. “It is so much fun to celebrate our students’ uniqueness, both within our specialized LEAP classes and across our general education classrooms, all while using themed days in child-friendly language to help everyone understand ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) differences.”

Providencia Elementary, located near Washington and Bret Harte, also participates in Autism Acceptance Month with theme/spirit days, such as Magnificent Mind Monday and Neurodiversity Tuesday.

Books about autism and acceptance were made available for Providencia staff to use in their classrooms, Collins said. Providencia Principal Jennifer Culbertson asked for the resources to help educate the school’s students about autism acceptance.

“By teaching the students at Washington Elementary and other schools around Burbank about autism, the staff hope that this knowledge and increased compassion of the students will continue as they move on to middle and high school,” Collins added.

She tells the students at Washington that “they have an opportunity to be autism advocates wherever they go, whether it be a new school, a birthday party, the grocery store, a baseball game, etc. Celebrating Autism Acceptance Month is just one way that these school communities are trying to help their students become compassionate young adults.”

An interactive “Autism Resource Room” image with links to resources about autism was created by Washington Elementary teacher Chandra Collins and shared with staff and families. Click on the photo to see the linked autism resources. (Photo Courtesy Chandra Collins)

About one in 44 eight-year-olds throughout the U.S. have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), according to information released in December 2021 by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, based on data from 11 states recorded in 2018. In California, where ASD services are plentiful, one in 26 eight-year-olds have been diagnosed.

Burbank Unified School District officially proclaimed April as Autism Acceptance Month at the March 17 Board of Education meeting.