The bell sounds. Rainbow-colored puzzle pieces adorn the walls at Palo Verde High Magnet School, as students of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and learning levels scurry to class. It’s April, and the pieces are up to celebrate Autism Awareness Month. The colorful beacons of inclusion, acceptance and complexity are the official symbol of Autism Awareness. Though at Palo Verde, the idea of multi-colored puzzle pieces means something more.
“I like going to Palo Verde, because I can make friends here.” Marissa, student at Palo Verde with autism.
The project was the brainchild of Sue Kehl and Ashley Sarnes, paraprofessionals who work in the self-contained autism class at Palo Verde. The goal was of the project was twofold: to increase autism awareness on campus, and to create a learning opportunity that would bring the Palo Verde community closer together.
“We have many diverse groups of students attending Palo Verde, and each and every one of them deserves compassion and kindness… whether they are in general education or are students with special needs,” says Ms. Kehl. In order to get the project off the ground, she collaborated with Heidi McPeak, who is one of the art teachers at Palo Verde.
“All the students were 100% on board,” explains Ms. McPeak, who primarily teaches clay. “We took maybe 5-10 minutes out of each class through one day to work… and ended up with 178 pieces.”
“Autism is not me, but I’ve learned to grow stronger with it.” Zachary, student at Palo Verde with autism.
The colors and shapes of the pieces represent the diversity of people and families living with autism, as well as the mystery and complexity behind it. That diversity, and inclusion, is well represented by the Palo Verde community, and those involved in the project.
“All of my students were super excited to be a part of it,” summarizes Ms. McPeak. “It’s just making those connections, and making it real for them.”
Jennifer Mata-Salinas, a senior at Palo Verde, echoes Ms. McPeak’s sentiments.
“[The project] resembles every way Palo Verde is,” Jennifer says. “Everyone here is diverse and they are not afraid to represent who they are by any means.”
“Despite the challenges, I love my autism and I wouldn’t want it any other way.” – Jarod, student at Palo Verde with autism.
The hallway is more than just puzzle pieces. Displays include statistics and information on autism. There is also a section with stories from students on what it is like to have autism. That aspect impresses Patricia Wheeler, who teaches anatomy at Palo Verde.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there for a lot of people,” Ms. Wheeler states.
The project has defeated those misconceptions within the walls of Palo Verde. Through this learning experience, the student body has embraced Autism Awareness with open arms and come together as one thriving community.