The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 59 children in the United States have autism. Autism is not a predictable or uniform disability – it presents differently in every child – so there’s no “one size fits all” approach to autism education. To show special education students at the High Road Academy of Wallingford that autism shouldn’t keep them from pursuing their dreams, administrators recently invited in an “openly and proudly autistic” politician and professor to speak at the school.
Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez and her story of overcoming the challenges of living with autism caught the attention of school officials after her election to the Enfield, Connecticut Board of Education in late 2017. High Road Academy Educational Director Sue Gilleaudeau invited Hernandez, who is also an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Mass., to tour the school and meet with students.
During her time at High Road Academy, Hernandez toured the campus and gave a presentation to students, bringing her positive outlook and inspiring attitude to the classroom. She encouraged the students to be the most influential voice in their life and to know their rights. Hernandez also discussed her strategies for coping with stressful situations and asked students about theirs.
Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, the first openly autistic member of the Enfield Board of Education in 2017, is an advocate for autism awareness.
“I want to expand the definition of what autism is and show that our strengths really play into a lot of our successes.”
— Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, Enfield CT Board of Education
A student connects with Sarah Hernandez after her presentation at High Road Academy.
“I think there is a negative stigma that comes with the diagnosis,” said Hernandez. “I want to expand the definition of what autism is and show that our strengths really play into a lot of our successes.”
The students’ response to Hernandez was incredible. They were excited and engaged, and many of them shared with her their own personal experiences.
Seventeen-year-old Tyler Wahl said he has faced many of the challenges Hernandez talked about, especially dealing with other people’s expectations. He added that the right guidance from his teachers at High Road Academy helped him focus on his own goals.
“People told me I can’t do things because I’m autistic, and I started to believe that. But my teachers here say not to worry about that,” Wahl said. “When I was in middle school, I didn’t know how to read, and my teachers told me, ‘You are the only person who can tell yourself you can read. Don’t hold yourself back.’ When I stopped holding myself back, I can read really well now and I’m able to do a lot of things I couldn’t do.”
Having someone like Ms. Hernandez to look to for inspiration and encouragement is incredibly meaningful for our students. It meant so much to have her at our school.<
Hernandez’s visit also reinforced High Road Academy’s mission and values. “We want our students to believe in themselves as much as we believe in them,” Gilleaudeau said. “Just because they have challenges doesn’t mean that that is the end of their potential. They can achieve their goals.”
“Having someone like Ms. Hernandez to look to for inspiration and encouragement is incredibly meaningful for our students,” said Gilleaudeau. “It meant so much to have her at our school.”
Part of the Catapult Learning family, High Road Academy’s staff work closely with school administrators to help students develop the academic, social and behavioral skills they need to be successful inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to those with autism, High Road Academy serves K-12 students who have varied exceptionalities, including but not limited to autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, communication disorders and physical challenges.
A student raises his hand to share his perspective in response to Hernandez’s talk.