For additional information about the program and video, or to donate to the fundraiser, please contact Stephanie Fletcher at email@example.com or (770) 888-3470 ext. 331846.
Teary eyes and emotional letters encouraged two West Forsyth High School seniors that their message was reaching the hearts of others.
Kaden Ochocki and Trevor White wrote and directed “Are You Aware?” to promote autism awareness for “typical” students who encounter students with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, in a school environment.
The film, broadcast to the school Wednesday, kicked off an awareness campaign and fundraiser, which a volunteer group of students plans to spread through the county.
Work on the documentary began about two years ago, when an autism teacher approached the school’s broadcast teacher with the project.
Ochocki took an immediate interest in working on the film, which taught her volumes about a world with which she wasn’t too familiar.
She hopes her experience will translate in the film’s message, especially for students.
“I don’t want them to try to change children with autisms’ lives,” she said. “I want it to change their lives, and realize that making fun of these kids is not OK and that you can become friends with them and be a better person because of that.”
White, who joined the project shortly after Ochocki, said the journey of making the film has been “life changing.”
“We just wanted to express what autism is and how everyday students can relate to these kids with autism,” White said. “We wanted to spread the word.”
The film made its premiere at the ReelAbilities ALT Disabilities Film Festival in October. It will also be shown at an upcoming event in New York City.
The documentary begins with students walking through the halls of West Forsyth as a voiceover recites statistics such as 1 in 110 people are diagnosed with autism.
Interviews with parents, teachers, professionals and volunteers give insight into the condition, but the words of autistic students on their experiences tugged at the heart strings of the high schoolers.
Junior Halle Xanthos said the video was very “touching” emotionally.
“I didn’t know that they have a lack of friends,” Xanthos said.
She plans to start practicing one of the film’s simplest messages that just waving hello in the hallway makes a big difference for the school’s autistic students, many of whom are too shy to initiate those friendships.
The serious nature of the video quickly caught the attention of junior Mohamed Camara.
“It makes me want to get out there … and just talk to them every now and then,” said Camara, adding that he’d like to get involved in working with autistic students.
The school’s peer facilitators meet with the students in the self-contained autism program.
Professionals in the film explain that the presence of “typical” peers allows the autistic students to gain social skills and important friendships.
Andrew Hoffritz said he became a peer facilitator by chance after signing up to spend a semester helping out in the school’s office.
It’s an experience for which he’s grateful.
“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve started this program,” Hoffritz said. “It’s been very life changing.”
Letters students wrote after viewing the film Wednesday expressed an interest in joining the peer facilitator program and showed a new understanding for the condition, Hoffritz and his fellow volunteer students said.
They spent lunchtime working the kickoff of the awareness campaign, selling bracelets and an art reprint of “The Autistic Mind,” painted by junior Willow Richison with students from the autism program.
Richison said she enjoyed seeing the piece contribute to the message.
“I really didn’t know much at all [about autism] when I started,” she said. “I’ve had it explained to me before, but actually working with the kids was a different experience.”
She had the nine students in West’s program paint the background for the work and also included a photo transfer of something each student had an interest in.
The painting was one component of the school’s campaign and fundraiser, which Richison said she hopes “goes farther than just selling bracelets.”
For starters, proceeds from the fundraiser will be used to purchase sensory equipment for students with autism.
Camp Southern Ground, a project of local Grammy-Award winning musician Zac Brown, donated the money to buy the items for the sale.
The next stop for the film, as well as the student group spreading awareness, will be at other county high schools, said Stephanie Fletcher, autism teacher.
She launched interest in creating the project based on the variety of questions from the school’s students and teachers about autism.
The filmmakers, artists and volunteer students took it from there, Fletcher said, but she also commended the courageous involvement of the students in the autism program, especially on the film.
“For those students, they’re advocating for themselves,” she said. “They want people to be aware that they’re just like everyone else.”