Students at Raytown's Westridge Elementary School were educated about autism spectrum disorder thanks to 9-year-old Mariah Turner.
Turner’s pre-school-aged brother has autism and could soon be walking the same elementary school halls as his older sister. That's why Turner took it upon herself to make sure her schoolmates understood the disorder that affects 1 in 59 kids in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I just want to make sure everyone understands what autism is so they can help him,” she wrote in a proposal to Matt Jones, Westridge's principal, before Autism Awareness Month in April. Along with the handwritten letter, she provided age appropriate information that could be used to help elementary students learn ways to interact with children on the spectrum.
“Some kids actually get bullied because they have autism, and I just don’t want that to happen anymore,” Turner says.
Jones, who says he was not surprised by Turner's initiative, sat down with the fourth grader to further understand her vision. She already had several ideas, and with the principal's guidance was able to set her plans in motion.
Turner recruited 11 of her classmates to help with the project, which involved giving up their recess in order to research the disorder. The students put the facts they learned on puzzle pieces, a symbol of support for people with autism, and hung the pieces throughout the school.
Turner says she knew the effort was working when a first grade student asked her what the puzzle pieces were about.
"It was like, so important to me that one of the first graders actually read them," Turner says.
Each morning for two weeks, Turner and her enlisted student educators read additional facts about autism over the school's intercom system.
The results of Turner's work have been entirely positive, Jones says. The story has made its way beyond the school community and Jones says he's excited to see the students recognized for their work.
This isn't the first time Turner has approached the principal with ideas for the school.
Turner is part of the Kid Lead program, a community partnership within the Raytown School District that works to mentor natural leaders within the student body.
Jones says he hopes his students learned about autism, but there is also another lesson from Turner's effort: "You're more than a just a kid here at school."
Jones says he wants students to understand they have a voice in their school. If they want to make a change, they should feel welcome to approach adults and classmates with their ideas, because it's their community.
"You influence who we are as a building, what our culture is, what we want it to feel like," Jones says. "If you have an idea or way that you can influence, then never shy away from that."
Elizabeth Ruiz is an intern for KCUR's Up to Date. Contact her at email@example.com.