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Abilities Awareness Week Amplifies Empathy at Jackson Avenue

February 8, 2019 – Livermore, CA - In a classroom suffused by a cloud of onion, some students were unable to hold back tears even across the room, which made the backward and upside-down letters they were stooped over even more difficult to decipher. At the end of their time in that particular activity session, when they were shown what their whiteboards should look like if they had followed the jumbled directions exactly, some threw up their hands. It was difficult to focus, and it was frustrating. These activities were part of Jackson Avenue Elementary’s Abilities Awareness Lab – just one of the events held during the school’s Abilities Awareness Week, from February 4 - 8, 2019.

The lab comprised three activities, each designed to simulate challenges in learning or physical differences. In one activity, students were tasked with chopping onions with a plastic knife without crying. The onions served to trigger an uncontrollable reaction – with tears being a physical response that could not be helped – to demonstrate emotional dysregulation and the difficulty in completing a task in a certain environment. In another, students were each given a whiteboard tablet and a paper with backward, upside-down, displaced letters as instructions to illustrate reading difficulties. The third gave the student a puzzle activity on the computer, in which the instructions were delivered through headphones that kept background noise, ambient chatter, and interruptions all on one volume throughout.

In the end, the frustration gave way to enlightenment; the activities were effective lessons in compassion. More than being relieved the activities had ended, the students patiently reflected on the experiences, asking questions and empathizing with feelings that were familiar to them. Leah Kletnieks, president of the Jackson Avenue PTO – which sponsored the program in partnership with the Livermore Special Needs Parent Group – was thrilled with the level of engagement from the students. “This has been such a positive experience,” said Kletnieks. “As students are learning about what these varying abilities feel like, some are able to empathize and say, ‘That’s how I feel.’”

The program is developing in students the knowledge for acceptance, for the abilities of their peers as well as themselves, and providing the social tools to reach out to students who they may have avoided or misunderstood before. At the beginning of the week, Jackson Avenue held two special assemblies for students to meet Matteo Musso – a former Jackson student with autism who learned to communicate by pointing to letters on a board, one at a time. With the assistance of his mother, Musso conversed with the gathered students who hung on to every letter, word, and sentence he shared with them. “I hear everything going on around me equally,” Musso explained, as he described his perception of the world. “I need more time to realize someone is talking to me.”

Musso shared how he learned that pointing to letters helped him communicate after nearly twelve years of silence. “This board helps my brain slow down enough so that I can get the words out,” he said, and has also led him to speak verbally at times.

To learn what the life of those of differing abilities feels like is an invaluable contribution to students of all abilities. As a student shared her experience with Matteo and his mom of her hour communicating at home without words - the “Shhhh” homework assignment - she expressed how lonely it was, detached from the social world. “Loneliness is a huge issue when we can’t communicate,” agreed Annette, Matteo’s mother.

After the powerful experiences of Jackson’s Abilities Awareness Week, every student now has the ability to see more clearly through the window of another’s world; to show newfound patience, respect, and friendship; and to invite someone else into their own world, to share and grow together.