Light it Up Blue: A Bright Future at Middletown Village School

Updated: May 21, 2019

by Sofia Bianchi, Founder

On Thursday, April 11th, Ausome’s Founder and Creator Sofia Bianchi returned to her childhood elementary school to host an assembly for students for Autism Awareness Month. Bianchi conducted two presentations (grades K-2, and 3-5) explaining her knowledge of Autism Spectrum Disorder and her personal connection to the autism community. Here is Bianchi’s personal account of the event.

At 9 AM, I placed my car in ‘park’ and turned the keys, the noise of the engine falling silent. This felt like a moment from the 1985 film Back to the Future, arriving in a place that was so oddly familiar to me, yet from an entirely different lifetime, so it seemed. This was the first time in ten years I was returning to this school during a school day, the first time in ten years my mother was not the one driving the car. I glanced to the side, the familiar recess playground beckoning me to finish that game of four-square from a June afternoon in 2009. I almost expected to see my old friends, who I’ve long lost touch with, dressed in Abercrombie and Aeropostale, greeting me at the gate with wide grins, saying, “You’re back Sofia, finally! It’s your turn now!”

And as I turned my head to the left, I could see my older brother Giulio clear as day- age eleven, and in his usual place: the far corner of the playground, swinging gently back and forth on the metal swing. I remember how Giulio’s classmates had avoided him as if he were a virus, how any time it had been Giulio’s chance for a turn on the swingset, the three swings that were beside him would always remain unoccupied. I could see his feeble little eleven-year old body soaring over the little island of mulch below him, his head tilted, his mind aloof. I could hear the familiar sound of the chain that needed to be oiled. His wistful black eyes would be aglaze as he stared into the abyss, echoing lines from any given movie. Any passerby would fail to recognize these phrases as movie lines, and mistake the scene for madness instead.

The nostalgia sweeps over me like the pain of rubbing alcohol, and passes in an instant.

I grabbed my laptop from my passenger seat and I exited my car.

I am buzzed in, and I am almost surprised at first, to realize that the ‘click-clack’ noise I am hearing immediately is coming from my high heels this time, and not a teacher’s or faculty member’s. I am taken aback to see such tiny children walking obediently to class, a little colony of learners, a mini-civilization. I can hardly believe that I, too, was this small the last time I set foot through these doors. Principal Zupancic greets me with a warm smile, followed by a humbling introduction on the morning announcements. After the Pledge of Allegiance, I am led to the All-purpose room. The hallways smell like cardboard and Elmer’s glue. I walk up to the proscenium of the stage where I once sang a solo in the fifth grade recital. I connect my laptop to the projector. The presentation is set to begin.

An announcement invites all third through fifth graders to the All-purpose room. In a moment a sea of children comes filing in with curious eyes and cherub-like faces. They read the title of my presentation: “Autism Awareness Month. by Ausome.” I wonder if they’ve heard of autism before. I am eager to tell them what I know. I am eager, because now is my chance to pour all of my knowledge and perspective over the soil of the future, in the hopes that in doing so, I may yield harvest to a new generation of minds that are compassionate and understanding.

My perspective is unique. It is not the clinical perspective of a social-worker, or a doctor. It is not the perspective of a worried parent, who hears the diagnosis “Autism Spectrum Disorder” and perhaps panics in the face of such a foreign term that is so unfamiliar and so unspoken about. Instead, mine is the perspective of a loving sister who has been BFF’s with her big brother from the start, who had learned he was different at 7 years old, and whose since made it her life’s mission to tear down the taboo.

The All-purpose room is full of children by this point, sitting criss-cross applesauce, ready to learn something new today. I clear my throat and introduce myself.

“Hello students,” I begin, cheerfully. “My name is Sofia Bianchi and I am here to speak to you today for Autism Awareness Month. I am the sister to an awesome brother... who just so happens to be on the autism spectrum. Does anybody know what autism is?”

I am met with wide eyes and pondering faces. Suddenly, a child in the front row raises his hand.

“Excuse me?” He says. He is extremely polite.

“Yes,” I ask, eager to hear what he will say. Perhaps he is the sibling or the cousin of somebody with autism. Perhaps this presentation will speak to him.

“I have autism,” He says.

Just like that.

I feel a rush of excitement and gratitude. “Thank you so much for sharing sweetie!” I say, excitedly. I am thrilled. I take the microphone over to where he is seated, and ask, “Sweetie, will you mind telling us all your name?”

The student says his name into the microphone. I give him a high-five, and say in response,

“Let’s all give him a round of applause! That’s awesome!”

I look around the room and I see how easy it is. A sea of young children, fresh minds, being told: This is cool. That kid has autism, and that’s pretty cool. They are so easily persuaded by the power of high-fives and enthusiasm. This is my vision come to life.

But the majority of the kids here still don’t even know what autism is. Yet they’ve already accepted it. They already have a positive perception of something that is so often seen in a negative light. I have to keep this momentum going.

So naturally, I begin with a game, because kids love games. “Let’s all start by closssing our eyesssss…” I begin. Hundreds of eyes flutter shut. Nobody even cracks a lid, not one wise guy in the audience. They sit peacefully and obediently with their legs pretzel-style and their eyes closed, like little monks doing a yoga practice.

“Imagginnnee what it was like this morning going your through your typppical morning routinnneeee,” I say. “Imagine your mother waking you up to get ready for school, eating your gooey egg or your crunchy cereal for breakfast, changing into your clothes, maybe the tag on your t-shirt feels a little itchy in the back,” I say, walking them through the scene. “Imagine you are walking to the bus stop. Think about the things you see, the sounds you hear,” I say. “Now open your eyes.”

The kids open their eyes attentively. I can see that my premeditated hypothesis has been confirmed: My best shot at keeping them engaged will be to leverage their imaginations first. It appears I was right.

“Great. Awesome. What was that like guys?” I ask. I try to use language that is carefree, familiar. Not too scripted. The kids seem to respond well, nodding their heads and feeling empowered to raise their hands to answer.

“Like, kind of like a regular day,” a little boy says.

“Yeah, pretty normal right?” I ask, nodding. We’re on the same page.

“Yeah, like usually every morning is kind of that way for me,” says a little girl.

“Yeah, me too,” I say.

“Yeah, and like...and like, me too,” says another.

“Cool, guys, great,” I say. “Now let’s close our eyes again…” I say, watching them all shut their lids immediately, listening to hear what comes next, “And imagine each feeling you just felt but ten times more powerful. The sounds you hear are TEN TIMES LOUDER. The tag on your shirt is TEN TIMES ITCHIER. The egg is WAY more gooey and the cereal is SUPER crunchy. The cars passing by on the way to the bus-stop are TEN TIMES LOUDER. The television show from the night before is playing through your head the WHOLE TIME you are trying to get ready for school today! Now, open your eyes.” They open their eyes and stare straight ahead. “This is sort of what it’s like to have autism,” I explained.

I look around the room and I see how easy it is. A sea of young children, fresh minds, being told: This is cool. That kid has autism, and that’s pretty cool.

I return to the powerpoint and show them this video, which explains with illustrations and in better detail what autism is. When the video is over, I change the slide. The next part is where I will begin to elaborate on my brother Giulio.

Yet first I need to begin by telling my audience that autism can manifest in a number of different ways. It is important that I make it clear that autism tends to vary from case to case, that not all kids with autism will be just like my brother Giulio. “Some kids cannot speak,” I say. “Some may flap their hands, or may do unusual, repetitive behaviors.” I say. “All people with autism have different skills and abilities,” I say. “It’s pretty cool,” I add. It’s all about perspective, I tell myself. I briefly tell the kids about my experience with other people on the spectrum, how I volunteer on Wednesdays at an autism day and residency program in New Jersey called OASIS tlc. I don’t even phrase it as “volunteering”, instead I tell them that every Wednesday I “visit some other friends on the spectrum, here in Middletown.” Because it really doesn’t feel like volunteering to me, and it shouldn’t. Nobody wants to feel like the person coming to hang with them is doing it for a favor. And I don’t feel like I am doing them a favor, either. I feel like I am visiting to give them the respect and attention that they deserve, that anyone deserves, and to learn about their beautiful minds, in exchange. We learn from what makes us different, and we apply our differences to achieve common goals.

I begin to tell them about Giulio, and his autism. I tell them that for a year and a half when he was young Giulio did not speak, that he could hardly write a four sentence paragraph in the fourth grade. I tell them how he used to do funny things with his hands when he got nervous or excited. I tell them he does not do any of that anymore, that instead, Giulio now writes poetry, and draws original characters, and creates short films. I tell them that Giulio also writes full-length movies, and that his most recent one: Jojo, is about a lemur with autism who gets “lost in a fog” and has to find his way back home, with the help of a new friend. I tell them that by simply asking Giulio what was going on in his mind when he was younger while he flapped his hands or recited lines from movies, he was able to get out of his own head and apply his raw talents to the real world. The kids are simply fascinated. They tell me that Giulio sounds awesome, I tell them he is. They ask questions, one after another. I answer, with vigor and enthusiasm. Eventually I have to tell them to hold on to their questions for the next slide.

This next slide is the one that triggers me. I have to remind myself to keep my cool before I get into it. On this slide I have listed three ways in which Giulio had been bullied when he was young. The slide looks like this:

Giulio used to talk about things people did not know so much about. Kids ignored and avoided him. This is a way they might have acted instead…

Giulio used to have certain repetitive behaviors, like repeating phrases, flapping his hands, or jumping up and down. (He doesn’t do any of this anymore.) Kids called it “weird” that he did this , and snickered behind his back. This is a way they might have acted instead…

Giulio used to dance in a quirky way, because his autism responds to harsh vibrations in the environment. (Allow me to explain.) At school dances, kids mocked him. This is a way they might have acted instead....

I have used sugar-coated phrasing, as there are terrible backstories behind each situation, clear as day in my memory. I turn my attention to the children and list off the first way in which Giulio had been bullied as a kid. I open it up to my audience, asking “How would you have handled the situation differently?” A sea of hands soar into the air.

We go through each situation. There are more than a dozen reponses for each one. The kids could not seem to stop thinking about the ways in which they might have handled these situations differently. I encourage them with high fives, and comments like, “super cool!” and “so awesome.”

At some point, a young man in the back raises his hand and simply says, “I have Aspergers.”

“You have Aspergers!” I exclaim. “That’s fabulous. You know who else had Asperbergers? Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton…”

I tell the kids that on a count of three we are all going to exclaim: “We are Ausome, so are you!” And on a count of three the Village School All-purpose room explodes with the sound of hope and change.

The child whips his head towards the kid beside him with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. His friend meets him with the same jaw-dropped gaze. The crowd erupts into woah’s and wow’s. Excitement sparkles in their bulbous eyes, and more hands shoot up like rockets.

I have to move on from the situational idealism slide, otherwise the presentation will have taken all day, given all the magic that was present in that room. I teach the kids about how blue is the official color of Autism awareness, how puzzle pieces are common symbols for autism. I teach them the phrase “Light it up Blue.” I encourage them to attend events that support autism organizations.

We reach the end of our presentation. Mrs. Zupancic begins walking up to the head of the stage to make some closing remarks. I tell her there is one last thing we need to do…

I tell the kids that on a count of three we are all going to exclaim: “We are Ausome, so are you!” And on a count of three the Village School All-purpose room explodes with the sound of hope and change.

On my way out, I walk past the schoolyard once more. It seems so much smaller now than I once thought it was. I spot that familiar swing set in the left hand corner of the field. And as clear as day I can see that courageous little boy from the audience who had admitted he had autism, not ten minutes into my presentation. There he is, hovering over his island of mulch, the three swings beside him occupied by new friends.

I get into my car, and for a moment, my heart is at peace.

Then I remind myself that there are other elementary schools. There are other worried parents. Autism is one in fifty nine.

I turn my key. I hear the engine start up. There is more work that needs to be done.

Sofia Bianchi is the founder of Ausome and the sister to #Giulio. She interns at OASIS tlc, a non-for-profit autism organization in New Jersey providing education and life skills workshops for young adults on the autism spectrum. Sofia believes that the world can benefit tremendously by coming together to cater towards the global autism and learning disabilities community. More on Sofia's mission under the Ausome Mission Statement.

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