April is Autism Awareness Month. Some businesses are participating in Light It Up Blue and puzzle pieces are appearing everywhere. Both are symbols of autism awareness. Tuesday, Falls Valley Elementary School in Idaho Falls hosted an assembly to help its students better understand autism.
The assembly featured a life-size jack-in-the-box as a tool to teach kids about the anxiety of autism. The students watched three times. The first time, the clown appeared as usual. The second time, the clown surprised students around a curtain. That elevated the anxiety of the third time the students cranked the box.
"Not being able to predict where the jack is going to come from, behind me, or the box," said Lana Gonzales, assembly organizer and Parent Education Coordinator for Idaho Parents Unlimited, a group that advocates for parents of children with disabilities.
"When you have autism you have to have a routine," said Kodee Fuell, a Shelley High School senior who played the clown in the assembly as part of her senior project.
Gonzales has a 9 year-old daughter, Macie, who has autism. Macie and her older sister Ellie attend falls valley.
"When Macie was first born I never knew what was wrong with her because when we went to day care together they weren't really understanding what was wrong with her. They thought it was her hearing because she wouldn't listen to them," said Ellie, Macie's older sister.
"She was first diagnosed with deafness, then I dug a little deeper because she had developmental delays as well. At 2, she was diagnosed with autism," said Gonzales.
Gonzales set out to educate her daughters' classmates so that Macie may be accepted.
"My whole point was to prevent the bullying from happening," said Gonzales.
In Tuesday's assembly, Gonzales blared music, flickered the lights, and sprayed scent into the air. That all-at-once chaos is something Macie experiences regularly, so she wears big headphones and often plays with the light switch.
"Their (those with autism) sensory is usually heightened or maximized. They have to take in the teachers talking, the lights buzzing," described Gonzales.
After the assembly, kids signed puzzle pieces saying they would spread what they learned about autism. That's a relief to older sister Ellie.
"I don't want them to say 'Oh, she's different. I don't want to play with her.' I want Macie to have a good life," said Ellie.
One in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.