Other People's Words

Interview with members of the Autism Ambassadors

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on June 15, 2010

This is a transcript of Autism Women’s Network’s interview with members of Autism Ambassadors, a group which helps teach typical students skills to befriend and help students with autism.


Sharon daVanport: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AWN Radio—the Autism Women’s Network. Today is Saturday, May 22. Joining me today is co-host Tricia Kenney. How are you today, Tricia?

Tricia Kenney: I’m doing really well. How are you?

Sharon daVanport: I’m okay, not too tired. My evening last night wasn’t too late. My teenage daughter had one of her friends spend the night, and they did pretty good. I kept telling them: “I have a show tomorrow, so you guys have to let me get this stuff done,” and they did really good. I ended up having a good evening.

I’m just really excited about our guests today, the Autism Ambassadors. I know that last year you had them on your Blogtalk radio show, Tricia. I know that I listened in on that show and I was just really impressed with these students. They are all freshmen—they’re ninth graders. I’m not gonna say too much, because I want Zak, Sam and Abbie to be able to explain this to our listeners, but they are doing some really great things in schools all over the world with respect to autism.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. They are very impressive and it’s really inspiring to see what the youth are doing right now, and how proactive they’re being.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Absolutely. My youngest son is 17, and he’s had quite the time in his different experiences in school, and he’s on the spectrum with Asperger’s. I think that he could’ve really benefited from something like this many years ago. I think this is an awesome thing. I wanna go ahead and bring Zak and Sam and Abby on now. Hello?

Zak: Hi.

Sam: Hi.

Abby: Hi.

Sharon daVanport: Hi, Sam; Hi, Abby. Thank you guys for joining us today.

Zak: Thank you so much for having us on.

Sharon daVanport: Yes. Zak, I wanted to start off with you telling our listeners not only what the Autism Ambassadors do, but I would like for you to explain how you got this novel idea to do this.

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. What we are first: Autism Ambassadors, we’re a peer leadership program that teaches typical students how to better interact with our peers with autism. What we do is we actually teach the students about autism, social, emotional and academic skills using a curriculum that we’ve developed to teach typical students how to teach students with autism these ideas and these lessons. So while they’re teaching them these lessons in social, emotional and academic skills, at the same time, we’re also building organic and sustainable friendships which [unknown] these students for what the students with autism really have the opportunity to build a social framework they might not have access to.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, wow. That is so nice. Now, Zak, I know how you came up with this idea because I read your website and I heard you on Tricia’s show last year, but I want you to tell our listeners here on AWN how you came up with the idea when you founded Autism Ambassadors.

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. I have a pretty close family member who was diagnosed with autism at a pretty young age. I really saw how isolated she was and really ostracized from our community. Autism Ambassadors, really, at its heart, is a program that’s going to make my family member feel more comfortable in class. So this is a program I developed for my family member, and it has taken off spectacularly. It’s gotten to the point where now it’s in 20 schools nationwide. We have over five family camps and centers nationwide as well. We’re helping hundreds and thousands of students across the country, both typical and students with autism.

What happened with the development of Autism Ambassadors was once I had the idea that I wanted to help the students with autism feel more comfortable, I needed to find a way that I could actually do that. I tried to write a curriculum. My mom is a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, but she’s not associated with the Autism Ambassadors program. We have a family friend who’s name is Dr. Frank Weiss; he’s our content director. Dr. Weiss has helped the Autism Ambassadors program and helped me write modules and then checked them to make sure they’re compliant with ABA standards.

Once we had these curricula and modules and started reaching out to schools, cold-calling them to see if they would be interested in implementing the program. Eventually we got some schools who were, and one thing led to another and the program snowballed and picked up even more word-of-mouth. The program is being implemented now in a ton of schools, thanks to word-of-mouth spreading more.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. And you’re on the West coast, but you guys actually have been to other countries, haven’t you?

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. I’m personally located on the West coast; we have Ambassadors everywhere from England to Brazil, and everywhere in between. We have Ambassadors all throughout the world and all throughout the country, even though I myself am only located in one position. What we do is we talk via Skype and we talk via conference calls, like what we’re doing right now. That’s how we train these Ambassadors throughout the country.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, that’s just wonderful. That really is.

Tricia Kenney: How many Ambassadors do you have a this point?

Zak: That’s a good question. I haven’t taken a count in a while, but if I had to guesstimate, I’d say somewhere around about a thousand Ambassadors.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Tricia Kenney: That is so impressive.

Sharon daVanport: That is just amazing. Now, Zak, you’ve got Abby and Sam there. I’d like for them to be able to explain what they do. You guys all go the same high school, correct?

Zak: Yeah, we all go to Westlake High School. Sam’s our curriculum director, and she works with myself and Dr. Weiss to oversee development of new modules. Abby is our deputy director of PR, so she helps spread through word-of-mouth the Autism Ambassadors program, makes connections to new schools, and updates our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Sharon daVanport: All right. So you’ll be able to grab the code off of our profile page, too, at Blogtalk Radio to explain to different people. You could also send a link to the show, too, and it has you guys explaining it and what you guys do, so that might be helpful, too. But now, Abby and Sam, Zak’s explained what your titles are and what you do, but how did you first hear about this? Were you approached? Were each of you approached by Zak, or did you hear about it yourself and you approached him?

Sam: I was approached by Zak; I met him through a friend who was also in the club.

Abby: That’s the same thing for me.

Sharon daVanport: Did both of your girls feel comfortable right away? Had you known someone with autism or was this brand new to you?

Sam: It was brand new to me. I didn’t know anybody with autism. The program helped me to learn about…I’m having trouble with my words today, sorry.

Zak: I think what she’s trying to say is that the program helps her feel more comfortable around students with autism. When she was learning about them, it really helped her feel more comfortable. But I don’t wanna put words in her mouth, so I’m gonna give it back to her.

Sam: Yeah, he summed it up pretty good.

Tricia Kenney: The type of children that you do work with, that you help to integrate socially and so on, are they in the regular classroom setting, or are they in special needs classrooms? How does that work?

Zak: Well, when we’re working with students with autism, we take all middle- and higher-functioning students, who we call “advanced learners” and “middle learners.” All those students in the program are from both inclusion classrooms and special education classrooms as well. If they’re mainstreamed, what we do is try to find Ambassadors in their classroom. If they’re in a special education classroom, we try to find an Ambassador who has the same lunch period as them.

Tricia Kenney: You don’t have non-verbal autistic children in the program at this point? Do you plan to do that at some point in the future?

Zak: Yeah. We have a few; I wouldn’t say that it’s a common type of student that we see a lot. We definitely have a few students who are non-verbal in the Autism Ambassadors program. But I think that one of the reason that the Autism Ambassadors program has been so successful among typical students is that we’re not taking them to the lowest-functioning students with autism. We’re taking them to students who are higher- and middle-functioning. Those are students we’re starting them out with because it’s much easier for them to become friends with those students.

Tricia Kenney: Right, and then work your way into more issues after that. I get it.

Zak: Absolutely.

Tricia Kenney: That’s a good idea, and that way it doesn’t feel so foreign.

Zak: Right. The name is “Autism Ambassadors” and our slogan is “An Embassy for Autism.” That was actually written by a student with autism, James O’Neil. But the idea behind Autism Ambassadors is that we’re taking people from two very different cultures—not that it’s a different culture, but it’s definitely a different environment. Two [unknown] separate environments, and we’re trying to bridge them together through Autism Ambassadors.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. You say you have a curriculum and guidelines that you go by. Can you just talk a little bit about that, Zak? Let’s say that tomorrow you’re going to go to a school: you’ve been invited to start the Autism Ambassadors there. Can you walk us through how that would take place?

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. What we try to do with the Autism Ambassadors program is we try to start out with baby steps for these [typical] students, because many of them, like Sam and Abby, had no previous contact with students with autism before the program. So what I do first, I usually have an introductory PowerPoint explaining: “What is autism? How do you feel about autism?” Kind of assessing the general environment before we start.

And then what I’ll do is we have over one thousand pieces of content, which we call “modules” or “lesson plans.” We have over one thousand modules in the curriculum, so we’ll take some modules with us and then we’ll train those modules with them. Each of those modules, they’re written like a script, actually. So the vast majority of students in the Autism Ambassadors program have been in plays; they’ve played video games.

They’ve done some sort of role-playing. We’re taking that natural form of interaction—role-playing—which they already know how to do instinctively, but we’re applying that to the Autism Ambassadors program to teach them these skills on how to teach students with autism. We have a module, for example, Study Hall. The Study Hall module teaches the typical students: “What do I do if a student with autism during study hall to make sure they’re on task, focused and working?”

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Now, I’m a parent to a son on the spectrum, and I’m an adult on the spectrum. I know how I would approach something like that. But what are some of those tools that you would use or approaches that you would use with a student?

Zak: Oh, for study hall?

Sharon daVanport: Uh-huh. Let’s just use study hall for an example.

Zak: We’ll try to make a marker on that student’s seat. So take a felt letter of whatever their name starts with, and we’ll put that on the seat, so they know immediately in the beginning of class where to go and where to sit down at. And then we’ll try to keep from going from thing to thing to thing.

Let’s say the student is one who might be very, very interested in Spongebob, for example. We’ll say to that student who only wants to talk about Spongebob: “Let’s get done with our math first, and then we can talk about Sponebob after.” So try to have a little bit of a reward situation, where we’ll take the student and make sure they’re on task and focused and working, and we’ll teach them the skills they need to get through the math program or a verbal program. But afterwards we’ll talk a little bit about Spongebob with them.

Sharon daVanport: Right. So you’re actually using their interests to engage them. That’s awesome. That’s perfect.

Zak: Absolutely. We try to use their interest to engage them. And one of the big ideas of the Autism Ambassadors program is that we’re trying to match up students with autism and typical students who have the same interests. So what we do at the beginning of the program is we actually give out almost a compatibility questionnaire. You know how on dating sites, they have a personality profile, where you say what you like, what you don’t like? We give that same sort of idea to students with autism and typical students, and we try to match up those different kinds of students together based on shared interests.

So if we have a student with autism who’s interested in radios, for example, we’ll try to match them up with a typical student who’s interested in engineering. It doesn’t always work so easily like that, but we always try to match up students who have similar interests, so that in addition to learning new skills, they can also have sustainable friendships.

Sharon daVanport: Right. You said you like to do matching for social situations, like lunch time?

Zak: Absolutely. Yes.

Sharon daVanport: So what does that consist of? How do you make your matches in that way? Does it just go by the scheduling? How do you engage that student for lunch time conversation? I know it’s gonna depend upon the student, but if you can give some different examples.

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things we try to do first is make sure the Ambassador and student with autism have compatible schedules in school. If you’re never gonna see each other in class or lunch, it doesn’t make much sense to be an Autism Ambassador for that student. So once we’ve decided they have the same lunch period or a couple of the same classes together, we’ll go over and actually give the typical student…we have three or four modules that deal with lunch time. We have a lunch time module; we have a “how to engage in conversation” module; we have a “how to eat properly” module. We’ll teach these modules to a typical student so they can work with a student with autism.

During lunch, they use the skills they’ve learned to shake up conversations. They’ll talk about common experiences: maybe shows a lot of people watch, maybe news events or maybe even cultural items. If the student with autism doesn’t know about those, the typical student will tell them about it so the student with autism can use those ideas in other conversations they may have.

Once they do that, on top of a social event, they’re actually gonna be teaching the student with autism how to properly use a fork and knife, or how to bring up a conversation, or how to ask somebody to sit with them at lunch—different skills they can use during the lunch time period.

Sharon daVanport: Are you finding, Zak, that when you guys go to different cultures, different countries, that you’re having to make some different kinds of adjustments that you didn’t even realize you might have to do in the beginning?

Zak: Yeah, definitely. We’re all Americans here, so when we were writing the curriculum and the modules, it’s from a very American cultural standpoint. First of all, we had to translate the modules; when we were in Brazil, we had to translate them into Portuguese. But when you’re in a different country, even on top of translation, you have to make sure that the cultural ideas translate as well. So we’ve had the help of some very committed Ambassadors in Brazil who have helped us find cultural events similar to the ones that we’ve used on modules in America.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. That’s so nice. Now, in your school, I’m assuming that was your baseline—that’s where you started everything. Is it something that you just do in high school, or is it something that you do in junior high? What are the ages that you implement this?

Zak: Well, we’ve implemented Autism Ambassadors everywhere from second grade to college. I think the curriculum is extremely versatile; we have modules that address all different age groups. I think that it’s really important to remember that the earlier we can work with the typical students…

Around second grade, that’s the first time someone will notice: “Okay. This student with autism is a little bit different than I am.” It’s before they’re actively discriminating. That perfect time right there, that’s when we can work with them in the Autism Ambassadors curriculum to make sure they understand how to properly work with and properly interact with a student with autism. But instead of just having tolerance or acceptance, they’ll have kindness, understanding and friendship. Ideally, if I had my choice, I’d work with all the students as early as second grade.

Sharon daVanport: Now, Sam and Abby, both of you said that this was something that you had to learn about; that you really didn’t have much contact with anyone on the spectrum before you got involved with the Autism Ambassadors. Can you talk a little bit about what you had to work on to become comfortable? I find that when I talk to younger students, they talk about oftentimes the reason why they bully or they have a low tolerance for people who are different is because they don’t understand. Do you find that that helped you when you went through this process of understanding what the Autism Ambassadors was about? Did that help you become more accepting, and are you able to share that with others now more comfortably?

Sam: Yeah. Autism Ambassadors definitely made me more comfortable, more understanding. They explained how some students with autism might stim and they do stims that aren’t socially acceptable. They teach you how to react to that, so when you’re with a student with autism you aren’t gonna have a reaction that might push them away. You can still interact with them and you know how to handle the situation if they start to do something that isn’t necessarily socially acceptable for someone who doesn’t have autism.

Sharon daVanport: Are you finding that things that you used to think weren’t socially acceptable, are you finding that you’re becoming more diverse-minded yourself? That after you get used to maybe a certain stim that someone does, you don’t consider it not socially acceptable? You consider it just who that person is?

Sam: Yes, exactly. You move into their world, and you realize that even though it’s not something that is done on a daily basis, it isn’t something that they should be turned away for.

Tricia Kenney: Zak, in your training, when you have people come in to be an Autism Ambassador, I’m sure they’ve probably never heard the word “stim” before. How do you explain what that is to them?

Zak: I wanted to extend on one thing that Sam said, actually, and I’ll answer that in one second. Sam said something about moving into their world; I thought that was a great thing to say. Last year, on World Autism Day, I was invited to a concert at the United Nations through a program called Sing SOS—Sing Songs on the Spectrum. They have songs from the perspective of having autism. They have artists like Jackson Browne record those songs on a CD. They had a concert at the United Nations for World Autism Day. [The person] who runs the New York Center for Autism came on stage and she said that too often, we’re asking people with autism to move into our world, but while they [unknown] to move toward them to their world. So I think that was what Sam was alluding to. I think that was a really important point. That’s one of the guiding ethics or themes we try to adhere to in Autism Ambassadors.

Tricia Kenney: Right.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Zak: Oh, sorry. You had a question about the stims. What we do usually is everyone in the audience during our presentations, there’s at least always one person who’s stimming. They might be playing with their hair or pickling their nails or shaking their leg. They’re somebody I can pick out and say: “Look, everyone stims—it’s perfectly normal. The difference between a student with autism who stims and your stim is that their stim might be considered less socially acceptable. What you can do as an Ambassador is just remember when they’re stimming, you do that too. Just in a different way.”

Sharon daVanport: Oh, that’s such a nice way of putting it, Zak. That’s awesome. You guys are just such a fascinating group of students to have done this. I wanted you to clarify for everyone: When you talk about “worlds” and “going into their world” and then “our world.” We have a lot of people on the spectrum who listen to this show, so we don’t want people to think that we’re literally talking about two different worlds. Most people would know that we’re not.

But one thing I do know, when it comes to language and having more tolerance, is learning to be more diverse in our language. As self-advocates, Tricia and I are trying to take the lead in our own communities of trying to change the language—to leave the negative out. And I’ve noticed that you guys just do a really good job with the way you speak about autism and I’m really impressed. I don’t hear a lot of kids your age even have this much information about the spectrum, let alone have this good of a handle on the language that they use. Is that something that you spend some time also educating Ambassadors about? The language that you use?

Zak: Yeah, that’s definitely something we value highly. When I first started the Autism Ambassadors program, I was writing a vision statement for us. A mom of a student with autism came up to me and she said: “Zak, you’ve been talking about these students, but you’ve been calling them ‘autistic’ students and doing this and that.” She actually gave me all sorts of different things that I could use to improve my language. One of the things we tell typical students to call their peers with autism “students with autism” instead of “autistic students” because they’re students first and have autism second. So we definitely spend a lot of time on stripping away the negatives out of language.

The first step to understanding and tolerance and inclusion is knowledge. You can’t fully understand and you can’t fully include somebody if you’re ignorant of their behavior and the way they’re acting.

Sharon daVanport: Right. What are some of the challenges that you’ve found you’ve had to adjust to along the way? Can you give us some ideas so that we can see how you’ve grown into this role of the Ambassadors?

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the really great things about the program and the way it’s developed so far is that there are so many committed students who all they wanna do is reach out and help someone. They set up the tools and the opportunity to actually do that. So I think one of the great things we’ve discovered is that there are a ton of students who have fantastic intentions and really wanna help.

The problem with good intentions is that a lot of students don’t have a sense of follow-through. So we’ll have a hundred students sign up and we’ll see 20 or 30 of them drop out of the program during the training stage because they have soccer, they have to do violin, or they have to play piano, or for some other reason. I think the biggest challenge we’ve had to overcome as an organization is making sure that we can retain as many students as possible, and making sure that the students we do retain are properly trained. We actually have two Ambassadors for every one student with autism, so that if one of the Ambassadors drops out, no student with autism will ever be alone during the program. So that’s one thing that works really well.

The other thing is that we don’t introduce students to their Ambassadors instantly. We gradually build up comfortability with the student with autism. We let them spend more and more time with the Ambassador, so the Ambassador’s extremely comfortable around that student with autism and they’re treating that student like they would treat a friend.

Actually, I have a very close friend, his name is James O’Neil. He’s a great friend of mine; he has autism. It’s always hard when you don’t know someone with autism to jump in cold turkey and really be friendly and social with that student. I was already educated because I have a family member with autism, but for many students, what we’ve had to do is slowly introduce them to the student with autism.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, okay. We have a question from the chat room. Someone’s asking: “How many properly trained Ambassadors do you have that are on the spectrum?” Do you ever have that crossover where you have someone that is able to actually take on the role of an Ambassador as well?

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. I’d say about five percent of our Ambassadors are on the spectrum. Most of those are very high-functioning, probably students with Asperger’s. So the real kind of impetus for Autism Ambassadors is that we’re trying to make sure that students who are socially excluded have the opportunity to be included in a social framework. If you’re a student with autism, and you’re doing fantastic and you have a group of friends and you wanna join the program and be an Ambassador, absolutely. We’d love to have you. Those are the kind of students with autism that we have in the program acting as Ambassadors for other students with autism. Those, I actually think, are some of our best Ambassadors because they already know so much about autism. They have a different viewpoint, a different way of approaching it.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Tricia Kenney: You [get that?] insight, which is so important, and I think that’ll really just do even more in the way of helping each other. I think that’s awesome that you actually have autistic Ambassadors as well.

Sharon daVanport: Right. From the chat room, they’re saying: “Well, yeah. Who better to do it than someone who actually knows what it’s like to be on the spectrum?” Someone to be able to have a voice there, too, that can help you guys, too. I think that’s awesome. That’s really great.

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. My friend James, I keep going back to him. He’s a really close friend of mine. Even though James lives in New Jersey, I talk to him almost every day. James, he’s a member of our board, an honorary member of the executive advisory board, and he does a ton of writing for us. He’s super eloquent, super well-spoken, a really close friend of mine. It’s been a huge help having him so close as a friend and having him so involved in the program, because he’s able to write evaluation tools for students with autism. He’s able to write modules with students with autism. He’s able to help us with so many different components of the program that we would not be able to have or not be able to see properly because we are neurotypical students.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Now, Zak and Abby and Sam, I wanted you guys to talk a little bit about the stigma of feeling different, and what steps you take to help students on the spectrum not feel that way. I know personally I’ve had experiences with my own child. He actually refused to join a couple groups that were set aside for students on the spectrum. He was very honest about it; he said [it was] because: “Everybody knows that that’s where the students with autism go. I don’t wanna go there. I don’t wanna feel different. I don’t wanna feel like that’s my group.” How do you guys go about breaking those barriers, where the students who are on the spectrum do not feel that they are in this select group because they’re on the spectrum?

Zak: I’m gonna answer, and then I’m gonna hand it off to Sam and Abby to see if they have a chance to share their viewpoint. One of the things we do in Autism Ambassadors is that we really try to level the playing field, so to speak. We’re really trying to say that these typical students and students with autism are equal. One isn’t better than the other; they’re both two parts of an equal relationship. So we do try to include students as best as possible.

One of the things you can do is try to get the students into other clubs, too. A lot of students with autism are excluded from a lot of clubs because of their diagnosis. One of the goals of the Autism Ambassadors program is we want those kids to have as many friends and as [unknown] a social framework as possible, so we try include them in clubs like chorus or band or different opportunities where they can make new friends who might be in Autism Ambassadors and might not be in Autism Ambassadors. Sam and Abby have something, too, they wanna share, so I’ll put you on to them real quickly.

Abby: One of the things we did when we were working with a student a couple of weeks ago is we tried to make him feel comfortable by doing things he liked to do. One of the things we ended up doing is Sam and I, we went over to his house where he was comfortable, and we played Wii and frisbee and we did scooters—just things that he enjoyed doing, so that it just made him a lot more comfortable. He didn’t see us as people who were trying to help him for any reason other than just wanting to be with him and be his friend.

Tricia Kenney: Good. Very good.

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Sam: If we see a student with autism sitting alone at lunch, we’re gonna go over and we’re gonna sit with them and talk to them, and just make them feel included in any setting. It doesn’t have to be lunch. Just anywhere you see a student, autism or not, you’re going to go and include them. It’s good that we sit with them and talk to them and include them.

Zak: Absolutely. We try to make students who might be excluded, even if it’s because they don’t have a lot of friends, regardless of whether they have autism or not, we try to make all students feel included, and [that they] are part of the program.

Sharon daVanport: Right. I can tell you as a parent, and I know Tricia can speak to this as well. It breaks your heart when you see your child isolated. I enjoyed my solitude, and I remember back in high school being overstimulated, so I liked my alone time. I was a little bit different in that way. But I’m observant; I’ve seen other students who are on the spectrum, and they feel just the opposite. They feel very alone and isolated, so I like that you take that proactive approach to approaching them. I know my own son has told me that: that’s all it takes sometimes, is for someone to break the ice. To go over there and start that conversation, and then he just joins right in. That’s all it takes sometimes, is that extra added effort. That’s awesome.

Zak: I agree. I’m looking at the chat room right now. A lot of people are talking about equality, and it is definitely a fact that a lot of people ignore. I think that’s one thing we try to emphasise in the Ambassadors program. In a lot of programs, one is mentor or one is a babysitter; or one is the leader and one’s the follower. But in our program, I think there are things that the typical students can learn from the students with autism. I think there are things the students with autism can learn from the typical students. So not only are we building empathy, we’re building equality as well.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, that’s awesome. It really is. I really like the whole idea, and the whole concept of this is just amazing to me. I’d like for you to talk to our listeners a little bit about if they want to get in touch with you, what it would take, what they need to do. You guys can give out your information. I’d like them to be able to contact you guys, to get this started in their schools if they want.

Zak: Yeah, absolutely. There are a bunch of ways you can reach out to us. If you wanna reach out to me personally, my e-mail is zak AT autismambassadors DOT org. I’d love it if everyone goes on our website. I’d also love it if people fan us on Facebook or if people follow us on Twitter

I wanted to address one other thing. I think somebody said: “It’s kind of like Big Brothers, Big Sisters.” I think the difference between us and Big Brothers, Big Sisters is first, we focus a lot on equality. In Big Brothers, Big Sisters, there’s a leader and a follower. In this one, I think both sides are learning. The second reason I think we’re different from that program is that we have a set curriculum. So no matter where you do Autism Ambassadors, you’re gonna be getting the same quality experience that we know works. With Autism Ambassadors, you’ll be getting that same experience thanks to our modules and our curriculum. We have over a thousand of them.

Not only do we have these modules and the curriculum, and not only are we making sure that all the students have the same experience, we actually have an evaluation tool we give at the beginning and the middle of the program at different benchmark times to make sure the program is working. So if it’s not working, we can go in and personally fix it. You know with Autism Ambassadors that you’re going to be getting the same experience that we know works in the other 20 schools that we’ve entered into the program so far.

Tricia Kenney: Can you explain how it extends past the school environment? The girls were talking about how they go to a student’s home. How much of the program involves outside of school activity?

Zak: The program is usually considered a club in most schools, so we’ll meet during lunch or in a club period. And that’s where we’ll have social events as well, where the student with autism and the Autism Ambassador can meet and become better friends. What we see a lot of our Ambassadors doing is taking their own initiative, like Sam and Abby did.

They’re actually going to people’s houses, inviting them to birthday parties, baseball games, go bowling with them, and really bonding on their own with the students with autism and becoming even closer friends with them. So I think that it’s definitely something that we encourage, but we can’t say: “You have to do it outside the program.” There’s no way to make sure it happens, but it’s something that we highly encourage and something that we wanna make sure every student has the opportunity to do.

Tricia Kenney: Right.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Gosh, I just think this is just awesome. You guys have just got something really good going here. I really like the idea of starting with the grade school kids, before they get to the point where they are actively discriminating against or really pointing out people’s differences in a negative way. You’re teaching that tolerance at a very young age and during the formative years, so I think that that’s so important. To me, that [unknown,] you know.

Tricia Kenney: That’s really impacting society.

Zak: Yeah, thank you. I was reading in Newsweek an article a couple of weeks ago. It was talking about people who do heroic acts: the guy who saved that guy on the subway. Where do these people come from? It wasn’t just something [that’s held close?] inside them and suddenly they’re heroic. They come from an environment that promotes heroic acts, and not only that, expects heroic acts.

So I think that what I’m trying to do with Autism Ambassadors is build a culture and environment in the whole school where even students who aren’t in the club respect and value students with autism, and that makes them equal members of the community. We put them on equal footing and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to know and expect them to be on equal footing, regardless of whether you’re in the program or not.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Wow. This is just amazing. It really is to me. I’m thinking of so many schools. Do you find that you have more requests from a specific age group, or are you guys pretty spread out?

Zak: I’d say that most of our schools are high schools. Look, I’m not naïve; a lot of the students do Autism Ambassadors because they wanna do a résum&eacute-booster, and I understand that. But even with students who are just doing it as a résumé-booster, they end up actually enjoying the program and going to become some of our most involved students.

So I think that we see it a lot in high schools because that’s what people are saying: “Well, I need community service hours.” And that’s where schools actually demand community service hours and expect community service hours. But we are seeing now more and more middle schools and elementary schools are doing the program as well.

Sharon daVanport: That’s what I would love to see it in. I’m gonna actually do some calling around here in my community. I will definitely be in contact with you, Zak, because I would like to see it more in the younger kids, too, as well, like an equal playing field. I think that the more that you can reach the younger generation and those kids during the formative years, before they get to that point of not being so inclusive with their classmates, I think that would be just wonderful.

We’ve got someone in the chat room saying: “Yes, especially in Ontario.” This is one of our AWN directors for networking, Corina. She’s listening to the show and she’s over in the chat room. She’s from Canada, and she said earlier that she sure could’ve used this as well, when she was a kid when she went to school out there in Canada. Yeah, Corina, you’ll have to do some checking around.

Zak: If she [contacts] me, I would be happy to talk to a principal; I’ll talk to a superintendent, anyone I need to talk to to get the program out to where she lives.

Tricia Kenney: We need to clarify: Is this going to cost the school anything?

Zak: Oh, no. I’m sorry. I should’ve brought that up earlier. Autism Ambassadors, we are a free program, totally funded from donations from people like yourselves. If you go and you say: “I think it’s a fantastic program,” and you think that you really wanna donate to help the program become sustainable and help the program continue, any $5 or $10 donation is surely appreciated. If you go on our website, we have a PayPal button. A $5 or $10 donation helps to buy pizza for students, and that’s the best way to get students to come to the club.

Sharon daVanport: That’s true. Pizza. [Laughter]

Zak: Also, it’s a free program for the school. Actually, we’ll reimburse the school for any costs that come as a result of the program. That’s why we do donations on our website. $5 or $10 is super-appreciated; I’m sorry to plug that for a second there.

Sharon daVanport: No, that’s fine. I think that what you’re doing’s great. You go into these schools all around the world and you’re implementing this program, and it’s not costing the school or the students or the families anything. It’s zero cost to have this implemented in these schools, and you guys are doing this. I just think it’s awesome.

Tricia Kenney: Especially with the amount of screening that’s involved, to not have any costs arise from that is awesome. Considering the amount of training that goes into training the Autism Ambassadors, that you don’t actually charge them to go to these courses.

Zak: There’s definitely a lot of costs that we see throughout the program, but it’s been taken care of so far through donations and through a very generous benefactor helping our program get off the ground in the beginning. Unfortunately, like everyone else, he took a hit when the market went through a recession and he’s had to cut back on his charitable giving as well.

Sharon daVanport: I tell you, I’d like to put a couple of people in touch with you—not only Corina, but I’m thinking of another one of our directors, Savannah. She’s got some youth leadership roles in her area where she lives in Pennsylvania, and I’m gonna send some information her way. I believe she’s actually listening to the show right now, too. She’s probably got some good ideas of different schools and areas that would be really great for you guys to go.

I just think this is awesome, Zak, Sam and Abby. This is just wonderful. I’d like to give the last few minutes of the show to you guys—for you guys to be able to share with our audience what you guys wanna share; what you guys want our listeners to know about Autism Ambassadors.

Zak: I think that if you zoned out the whole time and are just tuning in now, I think the most important thing you can take away from today’s radio show is that no matter what’s going on in your community, you have the opportunity, you’ve got the tools to affect change in that community. What we’re trying to do with Autism Ambassadors is make a better environment for all students, regardless of whether they have autism or not, who are isolated.

Our name is Autism Ambassadors, but that’s only because I enjoy some alliteration. We’re trying to help all different kinds of students who are socially isolated. They might be from a different socioeconomic sphere than other students in their school; they might have a long-term disease and are falling back from social development. Any student who doesn’t feel as though they’re a part of their school environment, we wanna help all of those students. We wanna help as many students as possible. So if you wanna take away only one thing, it’s that no matter what you’re doing right now, there’s something you have the opportunity to change what’s going on in your environment.

Actually, Sam wants to know where Savannah’s from in Pennsylvania. She’s from Pennsylvania, too. She wants to know local geography for a second.

Sharon daVanport: You know what? My geography is so bad; I know that when I mail stuff to Savannah, she lives in a little town. I know it’s taking a couple extra days to get over there. [Laughter] I think it’s Udica. Sam, do you live close to Udica?

Sam: No, I was actually right outside of Pittsburgh in a little town called MacDonald. [Laughter]

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Definitely I’m gonna be sending Savannah you guys’ contact information, because like I said, she sits on a couple different boards and stuff in different youth leadership programs. I just think this would just be awesome to be able to get her in contact with you guys. I know personally I’m gonna make some phone calls to our school board. Just in the time that I heard Tricia interview you last year, Zak, until now, it sounds like you guys have tripled or quadrupled how many Ambassadors that you have. You guys are just really taking off.

Zak: Thank you so much. Every year, we’re in more and more schools; we have more and more organizations reaching out to us. We have more and more places—increasingly, students—who are interested as well. We have students from all parts of the country, and all parts of different countries, who reach out to us. They’ve heard about it on Blogtalk Radio; they’ve heard about it maybe on a radio station there. Maybe they’ve heard about it on local news, I don’t know. But they’re constantly reaching out to us and we’re constantly getting into more and more schools. Hopefully, when we talk to you next year, we’ll be in double the amount of schools we’re in right now.

Tricia Kenney: What kind of feedback have you gotten from parents? Do parents ever contact you after their students have gone through this program?

Zak: Absolutely. We have parents all the time reach out to us. Just a couple days ago, actually, I got an e-mail from a parent. I had a parent the other day who e-mailed me and said that her son had no friends outside of school before Autism Ambassadors. Her son had no people to hang out with outside of school before Autism Ambassadors, no social plans, no social framework and really felt alone. Before the Autism Ambassadors program, her son was super-friendly to everyone and they were not friendly to him back, unfortunately. But now she says for the first time, he has a group of friends to hang out with. For the first time he really has people to hang out with after school.

Now I’m seeing something in the chat room by someone called CampSuccess. I haven’t heard of that group. Could someone explain what that was?

Sharon daVanport: That’s Corina; she’ll put it up in a minute. She’s from Ontario, Canada. Camp Success is something that she can tell you about in just a minute. It’s nice when you get to come on these shows, and the interaction that you guys get and the word-of-mouth. I thought that you guys were just planning to go to Brazil in the show that I heard you guys on last year. You guys have been running your program for two years now?

Zak: Yeah, two years. In summer, it’ll be two years.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. So it was the summer before your eighth grade year?

Zak: Yeah. You’re right.

Sharon daVanport: Right after your seventh grade year. Okay. This is just fascinating. Here you were in junior high, middle school, Oh, my goodness—one one of the most terrorizing times of my life was junior high. [Laughter] There you were, starting a program like this. That’s just amazing.

I think Corina is saying that [Camp Success] is a program that works with camp counselors for kids to go to summer camp.

Zak: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Camp Fermah, but they’re a pretty big Judaic summer camp all throughout the United States. They’ve got 10 or 15 locations. We were talking with two of their locations: on in Ohai, California, the other in New England. We’re talking to them about training their counselors and their staff in the Autism Ambassadors program, so that they can better work with the campers who have autism at the program.

Sharon daVanport: Well, there you go. Look how you’re just branching out and touching other organizations in that way because of what you do, Zak. This is just fascinating.

Tricia Kenney: I think it’s just so touching. It really brings tears to my eyes to think how proactive these kids are being and how much they care, and what they’re trying to do to change society, starting from inside the schools. It’s just so amazing.

Zak: Well, thank you so much. I think one of the nice things about Autism Ambassadors is that it’s a grassroots organization started by kids; it’s run by students throughout the country. Students are the ones who talk to principals and say: “I wanna get this program into my school.” They’re the ones who really are just reaching out as much as possible. Yeah, I think Abby actually has a point she wants to make, too.

Abby: It’s important that people should know that it doesn’t have to be just in your schools. Like Zak said, they’re trying to work with camps to get it in there. Another thing is, if you want a module, then you can also e-mail Zak and he can forward those on to you.

Zak: Absolutely. We actually don’t release modules without knowing who we’re giving the modules to. That’s not because we’re trying to hold on to the content; the problem is that we’ve actually had people try to take our modules and sell them [in modified versions?] in the past. That’s an issue we’ve had to deal with.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, sure. Yeah, you need to protect that program and make sure it’s being implemented correctly and the way that it was designed to.

Zak: Not only that, but we give it away for free. If people are trying to sell the program, it’s not fair to the schools who are buying these fake programs and following them.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, sure. Yeah.

Tricia Kenney: You could see this working in Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.

Sharon daVanport: I know. That’s what I’m thinking of, just listening. 4-H Clubs. I’m thinking of how to get all these different groups to be much more inclusive of students and kids on the spectrum. I could tell you, it sure would make that transition into adulthood so much better when you feel more acclimated within your community and society.

As an autistic adult, I know that this is something that Tricia and I talk about. I just want you, Zak and Abby and Sam, to know that Tricia and I, being adults on the spectrum, we come from a different generation. You didn’t have this kind of tolerance and acceptance. It makes a difference on how long it’s taken us to find our footing, to be self-advocates. I can tell you that the generation that’s gonna be touched by the work that you guys are doing is gonna be just…It just means so much, as a parent who’s parenting a child on the spectrum.

Tricia Kenney: Especially because it’s gonna affect their adulthood and how they’re reflecting on their childhood, and the traumas and the anxiety that they’re gonna be facing as adults will be far less.

Zak: Absolutely. I agree 100 percent. I think we’re trying to get into as many organizations—as many summer camps, as many YMCA clubs, Boy Scouts of America—as many places as possible that are interested and have a population of students with autism, and want to implement the program.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Wow. Well, we just have a few minutes left, so is there anything else that you guys would like to add? Or anything, Tricia, that you can think that we didn’t touch on that we wanted to make sure that we did?
Tricia Kenney: Well, they were talking about the program for adults. I understand that, but I really think it’s awesome to start with people as young as possible.

Sharon daVanport: It has its place. Absolutely.

Tricia Kenney: Right. And I’m sure that the model that they’re starting will probably fall over into an adult program, as well. It’s kind of hard to have 14-year-olds or 15-year-olds—

Sharon daVanport: Yeah, I can see the general effect, though, of us not even needing those adult supports that we so much see that are needed and are neglected. A lot of that, if we had more tolerance and acceptance of diversity, and teach that to our communities as youngsters and during those formative years, you’re not gonna see that carry over into adulthood. Unfortunately, our generation—

Zak: The biggest goal we have for Autism Ambassadors is that we eventually wanna eliminate the need for a program like Autism Ambassadors. Right now in this generation, if we can teach all these students about tolerance, acceptance, understanding and kindness, the next generation, when they have kids, their kids won’t know anything different and they’ll automatically have those values in them.

Sharon daVanport: That’s right.

Tricia Kenney: And it’ll spill out into your communities and just the general mindset of your communities. It does affect society. Right now there’s so very little tolerance that changes do need to be made at the starting point.

Zak: I agree. Absolutely. Eventually, I don’t wanna see kids needing a program like Autism Ambassadors in their schools to teach them that tolerance and kindness.

Tricia Kenney: Right; right.

Sharon daVanport: Yes. Very nice. Well, I just wanna thank the three of you so much for taking an hour out of your Saturday morning to talk to us and be our guests on AWN Radio, and talk to our listeners about your program. It’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

Zak: Well, thank you so much for having us on. We were thrilled to have an opportunity to even come on this show and talk about it to people.

Sam: Thanks so much for having us on the show.

Abby: Yeah. We really appreciate it.

Sharon daVanport: Yeah, thank you.

Tricia Kenney: It was great to hear from you guys and you’re such an inspiration. I hope everybody gets in touch with people like you and, if you have children, implement it in your school. Whether or not it has to do with autism is irrelevant. A program like this is just so necessary to move society forward.

Zak: Oh, thank you so much.

Sharon daVanport: Kudos and cyberhugs to you guys, from a mom and someone on the spectrum. That’s just what I wanna say to you guys. I will definitely be in touch, okay?

ZaK: Thank you so much. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. All right, thank you.

Zak: Okay. Bye-bye.

Tricia Kenney: Take care.

[Zak, Sam and Abby hang up].

Sharon daVanport: Wow. Just a wonderful, wonderful experience to be able to talk to those youngsters. What old souls they are. They’ve been doing this since seventh grade, going into eighth grade.

Tricia Kenney: Just completely advanced, and it’s so inspiring. It’s just awesome to hear these kids talk. They understand so much already, and it’s just incredible, the potential of what they’re doing.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Well, I just want to thank all of our listeners for joining us today, and everyone in the chat room. I wanna give a shout-out to all of our listeners who come in later and listen to the taped podcast. We’re sending hellos to you, too.

I think that’s gonna do it for us today, Tricia. I know that we have a great lineup coming up that we’ll be posting for the next month. Not just tomorrow, but through the week, we’ve got at least another month lineup that we’re gonna be posting soon for AWN Radio.

Tricia Kenney: We’re getting back into the swing of things, finally.

Sharon daVanport: I know. That’s gonna do it for us on AWN Radio. I’m Sharon daVanport, and Tricia, I guess I’ll talk to you later.

Tricia Kenney: All right. Take care, everyone.

Sharon daVanport: Take care. Bye-bye.

Tricia Kenney: Bye-bye.



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