Does Different Equal Deficient?
Young Advocate Says No!

By Linda C. Neumann

May, 2018

On May 21, 2018, an eighth-grade student from Warren, New Jersey, had a message for the Warren Township Board of Education. During the public comment section of the Board’s meeting, Johannes Wellerding rose to address the members and others in attendance. This twice-exceptional honor roll student, who participates in both the gifted and talented program at his school and special education, had an important message for attendees; and he supported it with examples, relevant quotations, and his own life experiences as a person whose diagnoses include autism. The message was this: Different is not synonymous with deficient. 

This wasn’t the first time that Johannes came to address school board members. During the summer of 2017, he was moved to craft a message about the lack of acceptance and sensitivity that he saw on the part of both students and teachers in the school district with regard to individuals on the autism spectrum. From early middle school, Johannes heard the term autistic used in a derogatory way — as a name kids would call one another throughout the hallways, at lunch, and even in the classroom. To his frustration, teachers took no action to curb this inappropriate use of the term. When bringing the issue to the school’s attention brought no changes, Johannes decided to follow his mother’s suggestion to go right to the top — to the board of education.

In deciding to advocate for himself and fellow students on the autism spectrum, Johannes was following in the footsteps of his mother Leanna Wellerding, founder and past-president of the Warren Township Schools Special Education Parent Advisory Group. What got her started as an advocate, she explains, was “that first IEP meeting,” when she found herself up against a “conference room full of combative language, aggressive tactics, and deliberate condescension.” Johannes, she explains, was “part and parcel of” her advocacy efforts right from the start. “He cheered me on and desperately wanted to participate. I like to think he saw his mother acting on passion and was inspired to believe that he, too, could create some sort of change.”

As Leanna describes it, Johannes “spent two weeks of his summer vacation last year drafting, editing, and revising his speech and several days practicing it before he spoke at the board meeting. He worked carefully to choose the most powerful words he could, in order to ensure that his statement would stand alone, should his communication delays interfere.” [See the text of this speech.]

Following the meeting, the superintendent came to personally thank Johannes for his input and assured him that things would change. Unfortunately, they did not.

When asked how he felt about the lack of action, Johannes states that this exercise in advocacy “felt like a waste of time and effort in many ways. I felt as though their words and reactions were hollow when I saw that nothing was getting done to change the way my peers behaved.”

But on the plus side, Johannes’ efforts led him to some realizations. As his mother describes it, “Johannes, on that night, came into his own. He stood tall, firm in his conviction, speaking words of truth. And he owned the room. That night as we drove home from the meeting he shared two things with me. One: He hadn’t realized that anyone cared about kids like him until he saw the BOE members’ tears. Two: He hadn’t realized that his message was so much bigger than his singular experience until he heard himself reading those words aloud in that room.”

When asked if he sees advocacy as something he will pursue in the future, Johannes replies, “I’m always going to be an advocate. I have to be. It’s like my autism. I’ll always have that. I always want things to be better than they are now for people like me.

“I know there are younger kids in my school district who need someone to speak up for them so they don’t have to go through what I did. I know that I am lucky to have my intellect and my voice, and I know that I have a responsibility to use them.”   

Comments by Johannes Wellerding, presented to the Warren Township BOE during the public commentary portion of Monday, August 28, 2017 (reprinted here with permission)

Good evening, President Allocco, Superintendent Mingle and the Board of Education. I’m an 8th grader at Warren Middle School. As part of my 9 years of education in the Warren Township School District, I have continuously received services through Special Education as I am on the Autism Spectrum.

Part of your Whole Child initiative concerns the emotional and mental wellbeing and growth of all your students. However, many students have been denying those on the Spectrum the chance to undergo said growth, by using Autism as a slur in the hallways and classrooms. By doing so those students are making a joke and an insult of the term Autism and taking a serious disorder and making it something to be embarrassed about.

As a student who has Autism, it is severely disappointing that the staff who overhear this language don’t really do anything about it. It is my belief that developing self-advocacy of special needs students is an important part of both education and the Whole Child initiative. But, due to Autism being used as an insult, it becomes nearly impossible to practice self-advocacy skills because to do so would be dangerous. If I were to disclose my diagnosis, I would risk being a target for bullying.

It affects me less, as I have been able to emotionally distance myself, and tolerate their verbal jabs, but I cannot guarantee the same for others who have Autism. I feel it is important to speak on their behalf as well as mine, because there are those who have special needs and are unable to communicate effectively. But they still recognize harassment and they still feel hurt by cruelty.

There are many effects of this verbal harassment. Students with autism may become fearful of stimming which is a standard physical part of the diagnosis, because that would make it obvious that they are on the Spectrum. Stimming is important because it is one of the ways we who are on the spectrum have to reduce our stress and help us to better focus.

Those students with special needs may fear being singled out and feel that, since students are throwing the term around as an insult, that they are an embarrassment. They may also fear that they are being stereotyped and judged by their peers, and that their peers are unaware that the Spectrum includes all types, low-functioning to high-functioning.

In my opinion, school should be comprised of education, growth, open-mindedness, experience, safe exploration, positive socializing, inclusion, and developing effective communication. Most, if not all, of these aspects are removed when students use the Autism Spectrum as a way to insult one another.
I hope that you will consider the seriousness of what I have shared and act upon this. Thank you for your time.

[To read what Johannes Wellerding had to say in his second address to the board of education, see] 

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