The Toronto Catholic District School Board hosted its 6th annual Autism Awareness Day with a talent showcase on March 31. Families, friends and teachers came together at the TCDSB Catholic Education Centre to watch students with autism show off their skills and their creativity.
“It’s about bringing the community together,” said Peter Stachiw, chair of Autism Programs and Services at the school board. “We talk about disability, but we’re really talking about the abilities of the students… we want to show off their abilities.”
The evening’s theme was “We Are Family.” There were 18 different performances that ranged from a storybook reading by Grade 4 student Luke Andrade from St. Edward’s Catholic Elementary School to a magic show by Grade 10 student Richard Coffey from Michael Power/St. Joseph High School.
Throughout the night, creative pieces and artwork were displayed from students across the school board. Matthew Phillips, a Grade 10 student from Bishop Allen Academy, caught everyone’s eye with a two-metre tall tower he built out of wooden Kapla blocks.
Grade 11 student Jonathan Church from Mary Ward Catholic High School prepared and designed a cake for the evening, while Grade 6 student Griffin Crawford from St. Mathias Catholic Elementary School displayed some of his origami work.
Sam Forbes, a Grade 12 student from Marshall McLuhan Secondary School, shared his thoughts on his rise to fame after his viral video caught the attention of daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. A friend had filmed the 17-year-old dancing to the “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” song as he was making a frapuccino. The video has had more than 71 million views on Facebook and has raised discussion about employment opportunities for people with special needs.
“My dream was to become a Starbucks barista,” said Sam. “I truly believed that I was going to get a job even though my parents were told I wouldn’t be able to work because I didn’t want my self-consciousness to get in the way of me getting a job.”
Sam said he was grateful for the school board programs and community partnerships that made his dreams a reality.
“I want to be an advocate for people with special needs because I want them to have the same lessons in their lives like I’ve had in mine,” he said.
Sam might have been the local celebrity of the night, but Stachiw said that he is only one of the many success stories. There are more than 1,400 students with autism currently within the board.
Their talents and abilities are diverse, which is why Stachiw said it is important that their schools create an environment where their uniqueness can thrive.
“It’s amazing how some school communities have a number of students with the diagnosis and some communities have very few students, so there’s still a lot of learning going on within our schools to raise awareness,” he said.
World Autism Awareness Day was celebrated on April 2. The board celebrates every year with an Autism Ontario flag raising ceremony in all the schools. This year, the flag raising ceremony took place on April 1.