By Sheri Duff
The Shelburne Community School (SCS) is on a mission. One of its school-wide goals this year is improving school climate through education around tolerance and diversity. According to Co-principal Allan Miller, “The approach we chose to reach this goal is primarily through in-class lessons but that all changed after a powerful two-day experience every middle school student had last month.”
On the first day Miller met with each middle school team to discuss labels. “He held a label-maker in his hands and told the students that they each had one of these in their brains,” supplied PTO President Alice Brown. “He went on to say that labeling is an instinct for survival, learning which folder to insert each new experience and each new person. The down-side to this is that we tend to put each new person we meet into a folder based on initial impressions, which often isn’t a great analysis of the entire person. Part of being an adult is realizing that we all label people, but then thinking about how we do it, why we do it, and the consequences of this labeling both for ourselves and the people we label. It was a wonderful introduction,” she said.
After the introduction all 280 SCS middle school students viewed the first 30 minutes of a documentary titled “Wretches/Jabberers.” The film about two autistic Vermonters, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, who have severe communication impairments and can only communicate with computers, was preparation for a presentation and discussion with the men the following day.
Because of their severe behaviors both spent a significant portion of their lives institutionalized on the assumption that they were low functioning intellectually and verbally. Nearly 15 years ago they began work with specialists who were able to provide access to their thinking through the keyboards and discovered two men of extremely high intelligence.
On the second day, every middle school student, teacher, para, and unified art teacher travelled by bus to Williston Central School with questions for the pair in hand. After a short introduction to the documentary, the SCS audience viewed the remaining hour of the film.
“Throughout the film we watched Larry and Tracy communicate with other autistic adults, who had similar electronic typewriters, and were able to communicate freely,” said Brown. “What blew us all away was the disconnect in our brains between the men that we saw in the film, who had trouble controlling their movements and could barely speak, and the eloquent words that showed up on the typewriter screens on to which the men typed. We learned about their frustration at being stuck in their autistic bodies, their pain at not being able to communicate until they received their typewriters, and their passion, particularly Tracy’s, for advocating for others with autism,” she added. “We saw their deep intelligence, spirituality, and humanity.”
After the documentary 10 students asked questions while the pair and their helpers sat on stage at tables and typed their answers. “They cracked jokes, made fun of each other (I’m the tortoise and Larry is the hare, Tracy wrote regarding their typing speed), and answered the questions with great depth and eloquence. It was just amazing,” Brown reported. “One answer in response to a question posed by Thomas Daley, a SCS seventh grader was especially telling, “What would they do if they could magically change one thing in the world”? Tracy responded that he’d like to see autism become the new normal.”
On that thought provoking note and once they returned from Williston, the middle school students created individual puzzle-shaped artwork during an activity planned by the SCS student council. A mural of student designed puzzle pieces representing the complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorder will be on display as a reminder of this learning experience. Even Co-Principal Miller creatively jumped into the act. The ‘no label’ puzzle piece he designed will likely find its way into the final display. “The mural is meant to reinforce the lesson the students learned about tolerance, labels, and diversity,” Miller stated. “After this, I believe we’re on the right track.”