SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – April is National Autism Awareness Month and throughout the Borough of South Plainfield schools and community groups have joined together to promote awareness of those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

“As we go through life we learn that we are all different and it is important to include everyone with patience, understanding and acceptance,” said Nicole Lillis, a special education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School. “You never know what someone else is struggling with.”

Autism affects the areas in the brain that regulate pragmatics of speech and perceptions of others and can affects ones social, learning, and behavioral skills. It can affect how people with autism assimilate and express verbal and non-verbal communication as well as sensory processing. 

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While once thought to be a relatively rare disorder that affected only 1 in 10,000 people, more and more health professionals have been diagnosing children on the autism spectrum. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) reported that approximately 1 in 68 children in the United States – and 1 in 41 in New Jersey – had been identified with an ASD. 

On April 15, the South Plainfield Police Department, in conjunction with the South Plainfield Public Library and the Common Ground Support Group, founded and run by resident Jennifer Bentivenga, ran a Special Needs Registry event. With assistance from Bentivenga, first responders from the borough's fire, EMS and police departments along with officials from the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department were on hand. 

Additionally, the borough council, at its April 16 meeting, recognized the importance of autism awareness and commended those who advocate within the community. Declaring April 2018 as ‘Autism Awareness Month’ in the borough, Mayor Matt Anesh presented a proclamation to local autism awareness advocates.  

“I encourage everyone to observe the month by learning about people with autism, their strengths, abilities, and the programs which serve their needs,” stated Anesh.

With World Autism Day (April 2) falling this year during spring break, Franklin, Kennedy, and Roosevelt elementary schools each held awareness events on Friday, April 20. 

At Roosevelt Elementary School, said Nicole Lillis, awareness is promoted each April with lessons dedicated to ‘spreading awareness and understanding of those with autism’ and other differences.’ Classes color ribbons with the autism colors, red, blue, and yellow and display them around the school and the book My Brother Charlie’ – a story from the perspective of a sibling who's brother has autism – is used as a teaching tool. 

“As the years go on we find new resources each year to share with the classes. We started a Google site where we add videos and stories that are geared towards each grade. There is even a Sesame Street video that is helpful to preschool-aged students,” said Lillis, adding, “We try to focus not only on autism but accepting everyone no matter what our differences.”

At the end of the school day Friday, Roosevelt students, teachers, and staff all gathered outside in a large circle and blew bubbles to ‘spread joy, happiness, and acceptance of everyone.’ “Who doesn’t feel happy when bubbles are in the air,” said Lillis. 

At Franklin Elementary School, student, teachers, and staff also gathered outside Friday afternoon to release dozens of red, green, blue and yellow balloons – the colors present in the puzzle piece logo that, on a national level, is used to reflect the mystery and complexity of ASD  – into the sky. 

“Every balloon is different just like every child with autism is different,” Lauren Suske, a retired special education teacher and mom of autistic twins filling in at Franklin as a substitute on Friday, told the students. “You are all different…[but] everything you like, a friend with autism likes, too. Make a promise to be compassionate and understanding when you meet someone who might be different.”

Over at Kennedy Elementary School, each class signed a large paper puzzle piece as a ‘pledge and school wide promise to respect all students.’ The colorful puzzle pieces were displayed during a morning assembly April 20 that featured student-centered, age appropriate videos and a PowerPoint presentation. The Kennedy School community, may wearing blue –  the color used worldwide for autism awareness – then gathered outside to blow bubbles and release balloons in support of the awareness initiative. Additionally, during recess, students had the opportunity to add their names to the large puzzle piece drawn in chalk on the playground. 

“Awareness is key, especially from a younger age,” said Kennedy special education teacher Brittany Lillis. “If we can show them that we are all different – we all have strength and we all have weaknesses – it helps us have a culture of acceptance.”

“I am happy that we bring attention to something out kids should know about. Autism is real. It is incorporated in our schools and out communities. It is nothing to be afraid of,” said Kennedy Principal Kevin Hajduk, adding, “When we educate students, and teach them a very important concept, hopefully it trickles to their home environment.”

Autism Awareness will also be promoted on a borough-wide level on Sunday, April 29 with a special event sponsored by the South Plainfield Library with support from the Mayor’s Wellness Committee. Stop by the library from 2 to 4 p.m. for ‘Au’ some Balloons Art by Eddie Lin, sensory crafts and activities, a special themed storytime featuring ‘This is Logan,’ and meditation with Ms. Aimee. Special Olympics Coaches Brittany Lillis and Heather Hearne-Pascal will also be on hand and an indoor balloon release will take place. 

“I would like to welcome all families who would like to learn more or may need support to come and visit our library during the autism awareness event,” said Councilwoman Christine Faustini, liaison to the library board, adding  “It has been an honor to work along with committee members and library staff to bring this event to our community. The library has done an excellent job providing outreach and support to all children so it is the perfect place to host this event.”

“The South Plainfield Public Library is dedicated to meeting the needs of the entire community and we are honored to partner with the Mayors Wellness Committee for this year’s Autism Awareness Event,” noted library director Linda Hansen. “This is a wonderful way for our residents to be part of an event that celebrates all of our differences.”

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