WARREN, NJ -  The middle school years can be challenging and somewhat awkward for most. But for one Warren middle schooler, challenges led to self advocacy this week when he addressed the Board of Education to talk about autism and bullying.

What follows is what rising eighth grader Johannes Wellerding said during public commentary at the Warren Township Board of Education meeting this week.

Good evening, President Allocco, Superintendent Mingle and the Board of Education. I’m an 8th grader at Warren Middle School. As part of my nine years of education in the Warren Township School District, I have continuously received services through Special Education as I am on the Autism Spectrum.  

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Part of your Whole Child initiative concerns the emotional and mental well being and growth of all your students. However, many students have been denying those on the Spectrum the chance to undergo said growth, by using Autism as a slur in the hallways and classrooms. By doing so those students are making a joke and an insult of the term Autism and taking a serious disorder and making it something to be embarrassed about. 

As a student who has Autism, it is severely disappointing that the staff who overhear this language don’t really do anything about it. It is my belief that developing self-advocacy of special needs students is an important part of both education and the Whole Child initiative. But, due to Autism being used as an insult, it becomes nearly impossible to practice self-advocacy skills because to do so would be dangerous. If I were to disclose my diagnosis, I would risk being a target for bullying. 

It affects me less, as I have been able to emotionally distance myself, and tolerate their verbal jabs, but I cannot guarantee the same for others who have Autism. I feel it is important to speak on their behalf as well as mine, because there are those who have special needs and are unable to communicate effectively.  But they still recognize harassment and they still feel hurt by cruelty.

There are many effects of this verbal harassment. Students with autism may become fearful of stimming which is a standard physical part of the diagnosis, because that would make it obvious that they are on the Spectrum. Stimming is important because it is one of the ways we who are on the spectrum have to reduce our stress and help us to better focus.

Those students with special needs  may fear being singled out and feel that, since students are throwing the term around as an insult, that they are an embarrassment.  

They may also fear that they are being stereotyped and judged by their peers, and that their peers are unaware that the Spectrum includes all types, low-functioning to high-functioning.

In my opinion, school should be comprised of education, growth, open-mindedness, experience, safe exploration, positive socializing, inclusion, and developing effective communication. Most, if not all, of these aspects are removed when students use the Autism Spectrum as a way to insult one another. 

I hope that you will consider the seriousness of what I have shared and act upon this.  Thank you for your time.

The public, and the board, clapped when he was done and most if not all eyes in the room were not dry.

Superintendent Dr. Matthew Mingle assured Wellerding that he would address the issue and share his words with new Warren Middle School principal, George Villar.