Bessemer set to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day next week


Alissa Pietila/Daily Globe

JAMIE STIFFARM, the special education teacher at A.D. Johnston High School in Bessemer, holds up the sweatshirt created for autism awareness. She said students helped to chose the design, which features the phrase "Creating a Path for others to Follow," puzzle pieces on the front and sleeve and footprints on the back.

BESSEMER - Students and faculty at A.D. Johnston High School have been preparing to celebrate the eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

Students will be tested with trivia about autism at the end of each class hour on Thursday, said ADJ special education teacher Jamie Stiffarm.

Stiffarm said the questions will help to "celebrate what kids already know about autism" and will help them learn new things, too.

According to Stiffarm, data shows that "one out of every 68 children born in the United States" has some form of autism.

A big part of the day is showing those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders that they have support.

A sweatshirt was designed, by the students, featuring the phrase "Creating a Path for others to Follow" on the front, puzzle pieces on the front and sleeve and footprints on the back, to promote autism awareness and helping each other.

The Peer-to-Peer class at the school will be offering blue puzzle piece pins and magnets on Thursday to honor the day. One key component to the world awareness day is "Light it up Blue!" Blue light bulbs will light up the building, as well.

Kindergartners at Washington Elementary will be painting light bulbs blue to help them learn more. Letters were sent home to their parents, as well, Stiffarm said.

She said informing kids at a younger age is a good option. "The sooner the better."

Stiffarm said she encourages everyone to wear blue on Thursday in support of those who receive an autism diagnosis, even if it's just something small, like earrings, a pin or a tie. The hashtag #LIUB can be used on social media to show support.

Peer-to-Peer class

A "Wall of Kindness" is featured in the hallway at ADJ, with the message that help is available if you need it. There is also currently information about autism displayed around the school.

The current poster on the wall features helping hands and lyrics to the Garth Brooks' song, "People Helping People."

The lyrics represent the mission of the Peer-to-Peer class at the school.

The Peer-to-Peer class has 14 "peers" who each have "links" they mentor as a way to bring awareness and understanding of different types of people, as well as offering help when needed.

"We can't just get our quick fixes and then not get help," Stiffarm said. "People want to help you."

The peers include seniors Anna Wacker, Megan Korhonen, Paul Buerger, Rachael Hoeft, Tianna Carlisle and Zack Mazurek, and sophomores Alyssa Alquist, Blayne Pellinen, Ciara Novascone, Jason Turula, Kimberly Wendinger, Rachel Emery, Samantha Olson and Tim Buerger.

She said the "peers" and herself are always keeping up to date on the newest information available. "We look at the latest research," Stiffarm said, and then students use the information to help their "links."

"And we support them academically and socially. It has been a blessing for my students," Stiffarm said.

Stiffarm and principal Dan Vander Velden said they both hope to see a level two peer-to-peer class added to the schedule for next year.

Vander Velden said, "We're hoping, next year, to continue the program."

"(The class) has been a really positive thing for us," he said, since kids tend to be more receptive to their peers.

He also said the class helps provide student support with a limited budget.

"Why not have the class?" Stiffarm asked. "It's a positive, proactive way to get kids to learn and share."

Open communication, such as the peers and links share, is a key component to understanding each other and our differences.

"It would be kind of dull if we were all the same," Stiffarm said.

The Peer-to-Peer group, as well as having events surrounding awareness days, allows everyone to share their strengths.

"Don't we all want that for ourselves?" she asked. "Don't we all want to be recognized for who we are?"

For more information about World Autism Awareness Day, visit or


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