Growing acceptance of special needs classmates earns autistic student homecoming crown

Photo by Melissa Caswell Antonio Liberati (left), 18, of Allen Park, and his Links mentor and senior student council president Kristen Cavazos, 17, of Lincoln Park, ride in the Allen Park High School homecoming parade Sept. 26 as members of the homecoming court, chosen by their classmates. Liberati has Fragile X, a type of Autism Spectrum Disorder associated with developmental challenges, and attends a center-based program with 10 other ASD students at APHS.

Photo by Melissa Caswell
Antonio Liberati (left), 18, of Allen Park, and his Links mentor and senior student council president Kristen Cavazos, 17, of Lincoln Park, ride in the Allen Park High School homecoming parade Sept. 26 as members of the homecoming court, chosen by their classmates. Liberati has Fragile X, a type of Autism Spectrum Disorder associated with developmental challenges, and attends a center-based program with 10 other ASD students at APHS.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Times-Herald Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – Changing student views and growing acceptance of others with special needs led students at Allen Park High School to elect as homecoming king a well-liked classmate with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Antonio Liberati, 18, of Allen Park, has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic type of ASD that causes developmental problems, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. He and 10 other ASD students are in a center-based program at APHS led by teacher Kathryn Cialkowski.

The school’s peer mentoring program, ASD Links, pairs ASD students with high school peers who help them assimilate into school activities, like cheering at sporting events, pep assemblies and community activities.

Although he is non-verbal, students say Liberati cheerfully waves to them in the school hallways and has an upbeat demeanor.

Senior Kristen Cavazos, 17, of Lincoln Park, senior student council president and Liberati’s Links peer mentor, shared homecoming weekend events with Liberati, and was crowned homecoming queen, determined by a vote of their senior classmates.

APHS Principal Janet Wasko said Liberati has been with the general student population for several years.

“They reach out to him,” Wasko said. “He’s very friendly and warm. Non-verbal, but certainly communicative: he smiles, he waves.”

Wasko said Liberati is able to point to things, and can read a little.

She said he was quite excited about homecoming, even though he did not understand all of it.

“He just knows that he is getting a lot of attention,” she said during the week before the game Sept. 26, “and well-deserved.”

Wasko said Link peer mentors spent time in the ASD center and taught the students basic moves for the upcoming dance.

Wasko said seniors nominate five girls and five boys for the court by secret ballot, and there is no campaigning.

“The kids have really accepted (Liberati) and so I think this just is just an outpouring of their love and understanding, awareness and inclusion,” Wasko said. “This is what we do here – we take care of our own.”

Cavazos said Liberati loves greeting other students.

“He’ll be just walking up and down the hallway and saying, ‘Hi, hi, hi,’” Cavazos said. “He can say, ‘Hi,’ but he can’t really have a whole conversation with you. He is always happy and smiling.”

She said he learned to understand homecoming rituals in phases. Peers wrote down what was happening on his iPad, and they helped him practice what he would be doing during homecoming court events.

“He knows what’s going on,” Cavazos said. “He has a sash to wear, so I think he understands. I think he really deserves to be on homecoming court, and the class of 2015 really sees him being on court.”

Homecoming court member Lisa Marsh, 17, of Allen Park said she has been going to school with Liberati since elementary school, and their families are friends.

“Growing up with him and seeing him now on the court really amazes me and makes me happy for him because he definitely deserves it,” Marsh said. “Whether he can talk to students or not, everyone has a connection with him somehow.”

Marsh said she is proud APHS students have shown strong acceptance of students with special needs.

“When I talk to people from other schools they wish that their school was like ours,” Marsh said, “and (they) wish that their schools had programs that taught kids how to accept other students.”

She said Liberati is always first to greet her with a “Hi.” She said she sometimes works with him in a class, and she knows his favorite things to do, like drawing on the board.

“He’s very easy to get along with,” she said.

Rachel Caswell, 17, of Allen Park, homecoming court member and a kicker on the football team, said Liberati is deserving of the homecoming court honor.

“Everyone accepts him, and he is so comfortable in our school,” Caswell said. “No one looks at him and thinks that they have to act a different way around him. I think he deserves to be king.”

Court member Kelly Grunduski, 17, of Lincoln Park said that while it is stressful because the court has a lot to do in so little time, she is very happy with the people chosen by their classmates for the court.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “It brings our whole school together.”

Court member Jenna Smith, 17, of Allen Park said she hopes to work with special needs children as an adult, and that going to school with a special needs population has been a valuable learning experience.

“They have taught me so much,” Smith said, “and patience, too. They love everything, and they are so happy about everything. I feel like everyone should be like that.”

ASD teacher Kathryn Cialkowski said she is proud of the students at APHS for their welcoming acceptance of special needs students.

“I think they are going to go out and be the students that are going to change the way people are viewed in this society,” Cialkowski said. “I am so proud of this school and the students here and Antonio. I think he changed the way our school atmosphere is with the way we treat one another.”

She said Liberati’s parents wanted him to be in school with his peers, and accepted by them and the community.

“I think this just solidifies everything they’ve done, because he is one of his peers,” Cialkowski said.