April 8, 2022
April 22, 2022
This bulletin board at Mason Elementary School celebrates the unique qualities of students with autism.
Celebrating autism: Educators speak out about autism awareness, acceptance and appreciation
According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Most children are diagnosed after age 4, although autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as age 2.
Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and early intervention affords the best opportunity to support healthy development and deliver long lasting benefits.
These statistics aside, there are a few things the Grosse Pointe Public School System special education team wants the community to know about students with autism.
One is the quote attributed to Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”
“My kids are literally so different,” said Emily Achille, an ASD teacher at Richard Elementary and special education department chair. “Of course, there are these common things they all share and that’s how they’re diagnosed. But their brains are all different. They have challenges and they have strengths and that is what makes them so beautiful.”
What autism coach Kim Moskwa most wants people to know is that these students “are capable of anything and everything and they have feelings and opinions just like anybody else does. We need to take into consideration even if they’re non-verbal, what are their feelings, what are their opinions, and what do they have in mind for their life because often that gets overlooked.”
“They may not have that verbal output, but they do have a voice,” autism coach Meaghan Post added. “They have a voice and a purpose.”
Even for students who are non-verbal, Meaghan stressed the importance of giving them voice through verbal strategies.
“It’s unbelievable even if they don’t have that verbal output how they can use those systems to communicate what they want or what’s bothering them or how they’re feeling,” she said.
“They have a lot to teach us,” said Special Education Supervisor Lillie Loder. “There’s so much you can learn from our students with autism. For some students that are truly severe, they live within a world within themselves. You need to understand that you have to be invited into their world and when you are, it’s amazing.”
Maire Elementary students get to know one another in a peer-to-peer environment.
There are some common misconceptions these autism experts would like to dispel.
For example, “a lot of people think they don’t want to be social and they don’t want to be around people,” Kim said. “That is the polar opposite of what they want. They want to be with people; they want to have friends. It’s learning how to do that.”
This is where the schools’ peer-to-peer groups play such an important role, helping students from the general education population interact with students with autism. While teachers work with their students on building social and communication skills and understanding appropriate play, sometimes it’s teaching their peers “how to play how they play” and “communicate how they communicate,” Emily pointed out. “It’s about teaching everybody so they can have more positive interactions.”
Another shift in thinking involves the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism.
“A lot of people on the spectrum feel they’re not broken. There’s not something missing about them; they’re not a puzzle piece,” Kim said.
The infinity rainbow has emerged as a new symbol, and a color wheel as a better representation of the autism spectrum rather than something linear suggesting students range from low to high functioning.
“We may think a kid is lower functioning, but maybe they’re not,” Kim pointed out. “Maybe we’re assuming something that’s not true.”
Students created these unique designs for a bulletin board at Brownell Middle School.
All four educators, who represent a total of 44 years of experience and a host of degrees in a range of specialties, agree that teaching students with special needs is a calling. And with any calling, it comes with challenges, but also its share of rewards.
“It’s the little things that we do that really make the difference,” Lillie said. “It’s difficult unless you’re in our world to understand what we do, why we do what we do and how we do what we do. But when you see that lightbulb go off over that kid’s head; when you see that glimmer in their eyes, it’s the best thing ever.”
Another reward is the strong bond created with the students and their parents, Kim added.
“We have these kids for a number of years and they become your family. I have kids from my first year of teaching 18 years ago and they still remember me. I have students who have moved out of the district who still email me and invite me to lunch. We stick together. I think that’s the best thing about being a special ed teacher.”
The job also comes with its share of responsibilities, Emily notes.
“A lot of parents are sending their kids off and they may be non-verbal and they trust you so much,” she said. “It turns into more of a relationship than just a teacher and parent because they really have to trust you.”
“We grow with them,” Kim said. “We watch their babies grow and we watch those success stories. And we still hear about it in middle school and high school and it just continues on."
Gearheads kick it into gear for state robotics competition
Grosse Pointe North junior Sa'ad Alrazzi was named FRC Dean's List Finalist in the state championship.
The Gearheads, the district's high school robotics team, had a strong showing in the state championship this year, placing among the top 15 percent of teams in Michigan. Only the top 64 teams qualify for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) World Championship; the Gearheads narrowly missed, placing 70 out of 458 teams in the state.
Recognized by FRC news outlets as a team to watch, the Gearheads ended up 8th out of 40 teams in one of the toughest of the four fields of competition, according to faculty adviser Jason Wolfsen, losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual runner-up alliance.
One standout among the state competition was Grosse Pointe North junior Sa’ad Alrazzi, who won the Dean’s List Finalist Award among 11 candidates chosen throughout the state. Sa’ad was nominated for the Dean’s List by his teammates.
The award recognizes exemplary passion and effectiveness in achieving the mission of the FIRST robotics community. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the world’s leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing science, technology, engineering and math.
Sa’ad, who said he likes to study physics in his free time, served as the programmer for the team’s robot, Mo. His job was to code the robot during the autonomous mode of the competition to carry out tasks by itself without input from the team’s drivers.
One unusual aspect of Mo – named for a character from the movie Wally – is that it was the only robot in Michigan with a pneumatic shooter. Using two pistons, it would project its cargo (two tennis balls) into a central target. Given the requirements of this year’s competition, this provided a distinct advantage and earned the team some competition buzz.
Fittingly, Mo also is short for “mortar,” an artillery weapon that shoots projectiles similar to how the robot shoots its cargo, Sa’ad said.
“The similarity and the design inspired the name,” Sa’ad said.
Gearheads team members, center, with their robot, Mo.
Building the robot began after the FIRST Robotics 2022 Competition Kickoff in January, when robotics around the world gather in their shops to watch the big game reveal streamed on Twitch, a livestreaming platform for gamers.
From there, Gearheads members kicked into gear, beginning with building the chassis, deciding what type of design to implement, and creating subsystems that came together and created an efficient robot for performing the prescribed tasks for the year. The fabrication and build stages were followed by electrical and then programming, where Sa’ad came in.
“There are no manuals for this game,” Sa’ad said. “You have to start from scratch and really that’s the innovative part.”
Whatever the phase, team members get to “choose what they find to be most interesting,” he added. “At the end of the day, everyone finds their own niche. We all work together to further develop our team and create a really cool bot.”
The team had a lot of help along the way from community members who shared their professional expertise as mentors. These volunteers included Jeff Santrock, Eric Kam, Matthew Rigotti, Mike Rogers, Nick Santrock, Alisha Wolfsen and Steve Hays.
Being part of Gearheads is a highlight of Sa’ad’s experience at Grosse Pointe North, consuming a lot of his free time after school and on weekends.
“The whole idea on my robotics team is that you figure out theoretical concepts that should work on paper,” he said. “You go through the process of trial and error and figure out what works and what doesn’t. And at the end of the day, you figure out a unique solution to a nuanced problem.”
Sa’ad does not regret any of the time he spent in the robotics shop with his peers.
“Time passes really fast,” he said. “We have fun. A lot of people are there. We cooperate and exercise teamwork and create new things.”
Mason links students to success
Students and staff at Mason Elementary are celebrating Mason's Links of Success. These links reflect accomplishments students and staff members are most proud of that they achieved throughout the school year.
Third grade teacher Hannah Whitman said her accomplishment was getting to know at least one student from every classroom at Mason.
Her students shared their own accomplishments. One was, "I did my first crossovers in ice skating lessons!" and another was "I passed my x9 multiplication quiz!"
"Links are hanging in the school cafeteria as well to remind students to take pride in their hard work, and to believe in themselves because they can accomplish anything they put their minds and hearts to," said Mason Principal Anita Hassan.
ALUMNI THROUGH THE DECADES
Grosse Pointe North High School
Class of 2015
A full-time doctoral student at UCLA studying higher education and organizational change, Tim Herd finds time to consult with different organizations on program evaluation and development – and to engage in artistic pursuits at the same time.
For example, he is working with singer and actress Selena Gomez on her new project, Wondermind, an online space that fosters community around mental health. His role is to conduct research projects to assist with the company’s Podcast and weekly newsletter.
Tim initially got interested in consulting while an undergraduate at Michigan State University. He created a mentoring organization called Rising Black Men, which provided a pipeline of support for Black men from the university to the greater Lansing community.
This initiative earned Student Organization of the Year accolades, while also affording Tim different opportunities on campus to pursue his goals. It also set him on his current consulting trajectory.
Tim moved with his family to Grosse Pointe Woods when he was in fifth grade, having previously attended Detroit Public Schools. He went to Monteith Elementary and later Brownell Middle School, where he particularly enjoyed his sixth grade science teacher, Walter Charuba, and seventh grade social studies teacher, Rufus McGaugh, now retired.
Tim recalls Mr. Charuba as being a fun teacher who “would come in and play his guitar.”
Mr. McGaugh impressed students with his travels around the world, sharing photos with his lectures.
While at Grosse Pointe North, Tim’s main interests were “school and sports,” he said. He played basketball and ran track and cross country, serving as captain of the basketball and track teams. An academic standout and member of the National Honor Society, he participated his senior year in North’s Freshman Assist program, serving as a mentor to ninth graders.
“It was a really cool opportunity to work with some younger students,” he said.
This planted a seed for pursuing education as a career. After graduating from North in 2015, Tim attended Michigan State, where he majored in elementary education, then went on to the University of Pennsylvania to earn a master’s degree in higher education.
While Tim is still developing his ideas for his dissertation, his hope is to complete his Ph.D. by June of 2025. From there, he plans to remain in academia as a professor or continue his consulting work for the private sector. He is also interested in continuing his creative pursuits as long as they align with his work and interests.
For example, last quarter he worked as a production assistant to help produce a documentary on the origins of Asian gang culture in Los Angeles. The film is slated to premiere in a few months.
For students graduating today, Tim’s advice is to “find your community. Find your village. And I know it sounds cliché, but be yourself. I know in high school and middle school you’re growing and learning about yourself, but having people who can support you through that process is extremely important.”
Our Vision: One Inclusive Community Learning Together
Our Mission: Cultivate Educational Excellence By:
- Empowering Students
- Valuing Diversity
- Inspiring Curiosity
- Pushing Possibilities