WALLINGFORD – High Road Academy Education Director Sue Gilleaudeau had one simple goal when she invited Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez from Enfield to her students on Tuesday.
"The most important thing I wanted was for them to understand that they are no different from you or me," Gilleaudeau told reporters after Selvaggi-Hernandez had addressed some of the high-road students. "Just because they are diagnosed with autism, it's not the end of the world."
The school serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, learning difficulties, autism, ADHD, emotional disorders, traumatic brain injuries, communication disorders have physical challenges. Selvaggi-Hernandez was diagnosed with autism during her studies as an occupational therapist.
Selvaggi-Hernandez is now 38 years assistant professor of occupational therapy at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. and a mother of four. Last year she was elected to the Enfield Board of Education.
Photo: Luther Turmelle / Hearst Connecticut Media
"You can and should be the most influential voice in your life," Selvaggi-Hernandez told a group of about 30 students. "Know your rights, know who can support you and be brave in defining who you are and how you want to live this life."
Autism, according to the organization, is a generic term for a group of complex brain disorders Autism Speaks, an organization committed to ensuring that those who live in some form live a richer life and help the general public better to understand. The disorder is characterized by a wide range of difficulties in the area of social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behavior.
Gilleaudeau said the students speaking Selvaggi-Hernandez are considered as part of the middle or higher working end of the autism spectrum. But Selvaggi-Hernandez said she does not like how the spectrum concept represents those with autism.
"I think someone with autism my brothers and sisters and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them," said Selvaggi-Hernandez.
During the time she spent with the students, Selvaggi-Hernandez discussed her strategies for coping with stressful situations and asked them about her. She asked the students if any of them used anything they called "Flappies" as a coping mechanism.
Flippies are repetitive hand or arm movements often used as a coping mechanism, Selvaggi-Hernandez later explained. But in conversation with the students, she urged her not to be aware of her habit.
"Flappy hands are happy hands," said Selvaggi-Hernandez.
Tyler Wahl is Junior at the High Road Academy. During the question-and-answer phase with Selvaggi-Hernandez, Wahl remembered 17 that at one point in his young life he could not read and never thought that he could achieve that goal.
But the school's teachers and staff convinced Wahl that he underestimated his potential. Through years of hard work, Wahl is now able to read for a high school student at a reasonable level and has a different goal in sight.
"My next goal is to find a job after I leave here." Wahl said:
It was important that Selvaggi-Hernandez talked to him and his classmates, Wahl said.
"I do not know many people who are adults and have autism," he said.