In the past few weeks, I feel like I have been running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Crazy thing is, I've loved every minute of it! Between coming back to school from winter break, applying to graduate school, making appearances (and of course, trying my best to stick to all my new year's resolutions), it has been a whirlwind.
A while back, I was invited to speak at an assembly at McAuliffe Heights in Altoona, PA -- the town I grew up in & where a lot of my family still resides. The school recently introduced two classrooms solely geared towards teaching children with autism. Since the program is fairly new to the school, and being that my platform is about Autism Acceptance, I was invited to speak to the school about the disorder. This was my first all-school assembly and I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to talk to a young group of students about such an important topic.
Leading up to the assembly, I spoke to a former professor of mine about different ways to sensitively talk to young children about such a serious topic. After many conversations, he then introduced me to an amazingly brilliant professor in our Disability Cultural Center at SU, Diane Wiener, who I had the extreme privilege of speaking with as well about my upcoming event. She opened my eyes to a whole new world of thinking (the woman really has a unique way of envisioning all different ways to accommodate for all different abilities) and helped me consider not only ways to improve my speech, but how to improve my platform as an advocate. I digress...
Finally, it came time for me to actually do the assembly! Just a few days before the end of my winter break, I visited the school and was suddenly in front of hundreds of young children between Kindergarten and Sixth grade. I was so excited but also very nervous (I didn't get much sleep the night before because I was rehearsing my speech over and over again). Going into it, I kept reminding myself how vital of a role I would have that morning. A large group of students who may be aware of what autism is, may also have never interacting with someone with autism or feel that since someone is different, they cannot be friends with each other. I knew that I had the opportunity to share with children a very important message that means so much to me.
I opened the assembly by performing the baton twirling routine I used as my talent at Miss New York 2016. The children cheered and applauded throughout the whole performance... a sound and a feeling that will ever grow old to me. I quickly changed into my appearance outfit and stood at the front of the gymnasium. I started off by explaining a couple "rules", you know, the usual "raise your hand" and "don't talk when someone else is talking". But, I also introduced an even more interesting "rule" called "loud hands" (a way of applauding that I learned while taking American Sign Language and one of the ideas Diane reintroduced to me during our conversation -- also the title of a book by Julia Bascom).
I spoke to the children about uniqueness, different talents, characteristics of autism, ways to understand each other when someone may be unable to express what they're feeling, ways to be kind to one another, and of course, the golden rule. I was able to call on a lot of the kids for questions and answers through the assembly and even got some volunteers to come up and help me explain my communication necklace (a tool I use that helps me sh
ow how I am feeling without speaking and a tool beneficial for many people with autism). The school was incredibly enthusiastic and engaged and I was so happy to be able to spend the morning with them. I was able to send them home with an activity to make their own communication necklace, too!
Following the assembly, I had a chance to visit the classrooms for autism and had such an amazing time seeing and interacting with the kids. Many of them were non-verbal, but just the chance to be there with them and engage with them was a gift of its own, regardless of our communication barrier. In the second classroom I visited, I met a very sweet young boy named Julian who gave me the greatest hug in the world and a sweet little girl named Liberty who took a liking to my crown. I wish I could have stayed with them the rest of the day.
Once I got back, I sat down and realized how much fun I just had. It was kinda like that moment you see in movies when a girl comes home from her first date with a guy and shuts the door behind her and just smiles. After doing this with the largest group of kids I've ever spoke to at once, it was an AH HA! moment. I know that this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life and hopefully some day as Miss New York or Miss America.