When talking about the difference between autism awareness and autism acceptance, Amanda Brott likes to say that autism awareness is like inviting someone to a party — but autism acceptance is asking that someone to dance.
As Chief Operating Officer with Hope, a national nonprofit organization that supports individuals with special needs, Brott is firm in her declaration that awareness simply isn’t enough. With 1 in 54 children diagnosed with autism according to the CDC, the population is significant enough to push past awareness.
At Hope Learning Academy in Chicago, a collaboration school between Chicago Public Schools and Hope, students with autism learn and succeed alongside neurotypical peers in an inclusive classroom environment designed to create a natural learning environment for all kids.
“It’s our guiding principle to educate young people to be accepting at an early age because we know that early exposure to people who are different and who learn differently reduces barriers as adults,” Brott says. “It’s age-appropriate and important to teach younger students that we are far more alike than we are different.”
Inclusive education, inclusive environment
At Hope Learning Academy, a CPS demonstration school in its 11th year, there are no separate classrooms down the hall for students with special needs, as is the historic model. Instead, kids receive individualized instruction side by side.
“There’s a stigma attached to that separation that is lifelong. If kids see that way down the hallway, there are kids who are considered ‘different,’ that mindset doesn’t change when they are in their 20s and 30s and making decisions that impact their local communities,” Brott says. “We want to flip that script and positively impact future communities because different is OK.”
Brott and her colleagues at Hope Learning Academy in Chicago know that their K-5 population are influencers in their communities and it all starts with how they educate their own families about the value of their inclusive classrooms as a model for society.
“Change happens within new generations and we know that our kids can have real impact,” she says. “When a young person shares knowledge with their families and challenges them to think differently, that’s how change occurs in any system and any culture.” Brott shares the image of a child who attends Hope Learning Academy engaging during a family dinner or family reunion and saying, “Hey, I have a friend with autism and he’s cool. Here’s what he thinks.”
These simple, everyday interactions can successfully counteract a too-often sensationalized media image of what autism looks like, Brott says.
“Kids with autism are kids first. They are playing and learning and making mistakes and trying again, just like every child in the world. To see those similarities between me and the kid next to me, of course I will take that home and share my cool experience and open awareness of our similarities,” she says.
Hope Learning Academy’s students will go on to become leaders making choices about an inclusive future society. Today, they’re learning that it’s OK to acknowledge differences and help individuals fit in better. “We want them to be future employers who can look past potential weakness and see value,” Brott says.
“They’ll know they can make changes in the environment or structure — or even ask what a person might need and provide those opportunities. That’s true inclusion, when the barriers are taken down and opportunities are passed on equally.”
Learn more about Hope Learning Academy in Chicago at hope.us/programs/hope-chicago.