For Roosevelt Intermediate School student Alex Jackman working with children and teens will autism, a developmental disorder that impacts social and communication skills, has been both a rewarding and eye-opening experience.
The 13-year-old began volunteering with Autism Family Times three years ago and currently serves as a peer mentor leader, spending time with younger children and also organizing monthly teen nights. Among the many things Jackman finds fulfilling about the work is the fact that she can see how she and other mentors are making an immediate difference.
"It's more enjoyable than donating money, which is great, but with this you get to see how you're helping," she said. "A lot of kids with special needs don't have the opportunity to do as many things as kids their age without special needs do, so this is their chance to go out on a Friday night and have fun."
Jackman has helped put together a sports night and even a talent show for teens with Asperger's and autism spectrum disorder.
"It's hard sometimes because you see kids who have so much potential and are so sweet and not everyone gets to realize that because they're seeing the autism in front of it. So many people have so many talents," she said.
Providing the special needs community with experiences similar to those of their typically-developing peers is something always on Jackman's mind. Recently, she starred as the Cat in the Hat in RIS's production of 'Seussical the Musical.' The teen approached the show's director, Annie Brzozowski, to see if the cast would be willing to offer a sneak preview to the autism community.
"I thought it would be a really great opportunity because a lot of times parents of special needs kids don't want to take them to shows because they're afraid they might be disruptive," Jackman said. ''Seussical' is such a kid-frendly show, such a fun show, it's great for parents to have the opportunity to take them to a show where if they had to leave in the middle they could."
Bringing her message to the masses
As part of the Teddy Roosevelt Scholars program, in which students partner with a teacher for a year-long project, the eighth-grader is currently at work creating a guide to understanding and communicating with children with special needs. The project, a video Jackman estimated will be no longer than 20 minutes, will provide middle schoolers with an understanding of what autism is as well as offer some very basic ways to communicate. Jackman said she hopes the video will be incorporated into both RIS and Edison's social studies curriculums.
"Maybe if they (middle schoolers) see someone with special needs, they won't be so afraid to talk with them. For a lot of people, if they don't understand something, they can be afraid," Jackman said.
During the time she's been mentoring, Jackman said, in spite of communication challenges, she can see that a bond has been established. Knowing that she has formed a relationship with a child who may not have many friends is very gratifying.
"I feel really good after I help, because I brighten their day, hopefully," she said. "It also makes me feel really grateful for all that I have and all that I can do."
Though she is still months away from entering high school, Jackman said she already knows she wants to pursue a career in which she is helping and advocating for the special needs population.
"I think occupational therapy sounds interesting," she said. "Because of this (experience) I know that I definitely want to do something with special needs when I get older."
Jackman's mom, Lisa, said while she is extremely proud of her daughter's accomplishments, she isn't surprised.
"It's just in her nature," Lisa said. "She's always had that heart, since she was little. She is happiest when she's helping others."
Founded by Claudette Bardwil, the mission of Autism Family Times, according to its website, is to provide leisure and recreation activities for children with autism and their immediate family members. The organization offers resources, programs, and services that can assist the child and the entire family. The focus is strengthening and supporting the whole family and building positive relationships in the communities where they live. To volunteer or for more information, visit http://www.autismfamilytimes.org/