Smith Middle School Celebrates National Autism Awareness Month
To illustrate the vast range of presentations across the autism spectrum, Exceptional Children (EC) Teacher, Beth Kinney, likes to quote the acclaimed autism expert, Dr. Stephen Shore, who said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” In her four years at Smith Middle School (SMS), Kinney has championed the unique gifts and contributions that flow daily from her students on the autism spectrum. During April, Kinney created a number of different ways for the full SMS community to celebrate National Autism Awareness Month.
April 2 was the designated day for World Autism Awareness 2019, and at SMS, it was “Light it Up Blue Day,” aligning with the color chosen to symbolize a movement to increase understanding and acceptance of people on the autism spectrum. Kinney and others distributed posters throughout the hallways, and many staff members wore blue. Students had the opportunity to take selfies with the “Light it Up Blue” poster. Every morning in April, students with disabilities have taken turns reading the morning announcements, with some students requesting multiple days for additional moments at the microphone.
The initial morning announcement offered a preview and vision for the month’s activities. “Even if you’re not personally affected by autism, you can show your support with Light it Up Blue and give people who are affected a light to look toward,” one student read. Announcements included a brief history of World Autism Awareness Day (it was started by the United Nations in 2007), a spotlight on the prevalence of bullying of children with autism, and readings with statistics, such as “The highest occurrence of autism currently is in New Jersey with 1 in every 45 people being diagnosed and 1 out of every 28 boys.”
Kinney is known at SMS and within the CHCCS district as an EC teacher “who will modify anything” when required or requested for students and other staff. In that way and many others, she fully embraces the belief that every child on the spectrum is distinctive, despite the commonalities that many of those students share. Kinney has earned multiple certifications during her education and training; she is certified in math instruction, English language arts (ELA) and EC. For that reason, she is one of the few EC teachers who works with students in both math and ELA, across all three grade levels. She and her students embrace the nickname, Kinney’s Kids.
Working from a collaborative model is second nature to Kinney, and she consults with many other teachers at SMS to ensure that children with disabilities are receiving appropriate modifications, whether in science, world languages or any other subjects. Every week, she also offers two days of after school math support for students with disabilities. A visit to Kinney’s classroom reveals many elements of her teaching philosophy, from the cart dedicated to devices like laptops and headsets, to the sign that encourages all students to “Take a risk.”
Tania Treml, lead autism specialist, said, “Beth is an incredible teacher who strives to have all her students reach their potential. While she is a teacher with many strengths, she is particularly skillful in working with students on the autism spectrum. She understands their unique learning profile and uses effective teaching strategies to help them succeed.”
“I always try to focus on building a safe place, a home within a home,” Kinney said. Each year she shares a point of emphasis for all her students, and this year it is “kindness.” Classroom conversations are shaped by markers and celebrations of kindness. “It builds rapport and community,” she said simply.
One of the many tangible practices Kinney embraces is to use the symbol of the puzzle piece with students and colleagues alike. As one of her students shared in a morning announcement, “The puzzle ribbon was adopted in 1999 as the universal sign of autism awareness. This image demonstrates unity. The puzzle pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition.” Her students receive puzzle pieces every time they participate in public speaking, a task that often presents significant challenges for people on the autism spectrum.
For April 30, Kinney has chosen a powerful message for morning announcements. “On this last day of April, we would like to thank everyone who has taken a moment to reflect on the diversity within our lives. We hope that we have broadened your perspective of people with disabilities. Remember: ‘the biggest barriers people with disabilities encounter are other people!’ Don’t be a barrier.”