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Autistic activities director at Plymouth elementary school shows positive side of disorder

Wicked Local Northwest - 4/16/2021

Apr. 15—PLYMOUTH — The world observed Autism Awareness Day earlier this month; Nathaniel Morton Elementary School embraces it every day with the help and positive example of an employee who was diagnosed with the developmental disorder two decades ago.

Madison Marilla has been the school's student activities director since February. Fresh out of college with a degree in psychology, she works with special education students primarily, using art therapy to help kids having difficulties get through the day.

She knows firsthand how hard it can be.

"I am autistic myself and I want to give back to the kids that are on the spectrum. I want them to see it in a positive way, not a negative way. I want them to see it as a journey that they're going to go on," Marilla said during a recent break between classes. "When I was their ages, I could understand all the behaviors that they have."

Marilla was 2 and living with her family in California when she was diagnosed with autism. At 6, she received additional diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

School was difficult for her from the start, even with accommodations like the bag of toys she carries everywhere, until one day when her best friend's mother introduced her to her jewelry collection.

Marilla tried on some bracelets and found the jewelry gave her a liberating sense of protection, like a shield. She started wearing them at all times and even made her own.

But when she moved to Massachusetts in the eighth grade, it all fell apart again.

Students who did not know her bullied her mercilessly about her condition, and her jewelry and the bag of toys she carried everywhere. The toys help her keep her hands busy and not touching things she knows she shouldn't touch, but kids in school didn't care.

Marilla's second breakthrough came in her freshman year of high school, when her mentor, Jess, changed her life forever with three words: let yourself out.

"Jess told me it's best to let yourself out, than hold yourself in. That means educate others about what you have," Marilla said. "She told me, 'your differences make up who you are.' Before then, I wanted to be the same as everybody else. And I realized that being different is what makes up me."

Marilla said she realized she just needed to tell people about her condition and explain her behaviors as a need, not a privilege. And let them deal with it.

"Now, I don't view it as a setback anymore," Marilla said. "When people are hard on me now, I'm like, nope, this is who I am."

That confidence and positive attitude propelled Marilla through four years at Western New England University, where she majored in psychology and minored in art.

She took the art classes, she said, as a way to help her through the program — her own therapy sessions built into the school day — and has brought that same approach to her job as activities director at the elementary school.

She goes into the younger grades to lead activities on occasion, but mostly she works from her office near the front of the school, where music is always supporting her theme of the week.

This week, the Beach Boys are playing as Marilla celebrates Hawaii by teaching students how to make felt palm trees. For '80s week, she featured classic rock. "Kids loved that. They didn't know what Blockbuster was though," she said.

Marilla's had Disney and Western themes and one week showed off her gift for languages, teaching kids how to say hello in a different language for every week of the year.

The first week of April was especially meaningful for everyone in the school as Marilla focused on Autism Awareness. She displayed jewelry she makes and sells to raise money for autism support and research. She also had students create puzzle pieces (symbols of the disorder) that highlight their unique talents and traits.

Principal Michael Spencer said he knew within minutes of his Zoom interview with Marilla that he would find a position for her in the school. Her projects are fun and creative and help to settle kids who are having a difficult day. But the example she offers to students and staff is also important.

Marilla especially connects with students who are having difficulties in school and is always willing to share her personal experiences with kids. She knows from experience that children, especially children with disorders like hers, want to fidget and be first, only like certain colors, and want to sit in a certain place. She tells them she used to be that way too, and still needs to play with squishy toys, to get through difficult moments.

She recognized her former self in a boy who has a problem mixing with other children on the playground. She made a point of easing him into group situations, like her mentor encouraged her to do.

"I do think it helps kids who have issues they're struggling with or trying to get by, that she can help them. That's really been her passion," Spencer said, explaining how Marilla will intervene if she sees someone having a meltdown over their place in line or the color yellow. "She'll say to them, 'you have to be flexible. Let me help you figure out how to do that.'"

Spencer said Marilla has also helps other members of the staff stay focused on the different challenges that kids face and reminds everyone why they are in the education profession to start.

Marilla recorded a video that teachers in the school shared with their students for Autism Awareness Week. She takes her toys back with her into classes and shares her squeezables, squishies, bubble-wrap figurines and 12-sided fidget cube with anyone who needs them.

Collen Kudrikow, a first-grade teacher who spent two decades working with special needs students, said that beyond her art projects, Marilla's experience in life helps students and staff.

For students, Marilla is an example of that it is okay to be different and to advocate for yourself. For staff, she offers experience and inspiration.

"To have her perspective as someone who can tell us the pros and cons of what worked for her is key," Kudrikow said. "What she provides is a little bit of a glimpse into the future. She's that little glimpse for us that there's so much more possible."


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