For the past eight years, General Douglas MacArthur High School has turned into a sea of blue during the month of April. During Autism Awareness month, students, staff and administration rally together to raise recognition of the disorder and help to educate the community on what it means to “Light It Up Blue.” Vin Causeman is a Social Studies teacher and head of the school’s Autism Awareness Committee. His passion for the cause goes beyond a few weeks out of the year.
“In 2011, myself and another staff member decided that we wanted to do something for Autism. I have two children that are on the spectrum and she has a nephew on the spectrum,” said Causeman of the development of the campaign. “Autism has been something that, even when my children were diagnosed, I didn’t know much about and we thought it would be a good idea to get information out there.”
The first year of the initiative began with a couple of T-shirts for staff members, while students dressed in blue for a day or two. What started out with 50 people at MacArthur has now blossomed into a districtwide campaign, where every school in Levittown does something for autism awareness.
“Now, we have thousands of students, staff and community members that buy our staple T-shirts that we make every year,” said Causeman, adding that activities to raise awareness extend to softball, baseball and lacrosse games, a tennis clinic and walks. “The way it has grown has been amazing. We want a society where people with autism, not just kids, are treated like everyone else and it’s a lofty goal, but what has been accomplished over these eight years not only in MacArthur but in the community with people on the spectrum is beyond what we thought would happen.”
High School Principal Joseph Sheehan is not only proud of his faculty and students, but immensely pleased with the growth of classes that cater to these kids.
“We have three applied behavioral analysis (ABA) classes with students who have severe autism,” said Sheehan, noting that the staff in the ABA program—Desiree Mendoza, Cindy Kalb and Diane Drury—have been instrumental in working with those students every day. “Those students, when they walk down the hallway, they’re treated like rock stars; they are high-fived, kids come over to them and go out of their way to make sure they are not only valued students, but part of the MacArthur family.”
“Kids in those ABA classes have been grand marshals at the homecoming parade, they’ve been part of battle of the classes, they’ve won senior favorite awards and they’re part of everything we do,” added Causeman. “When my kids were diagnosed I immediately thought: what were their lives going to be like? Were they going to be involved in school and able to participate? Now it’s becoming the norm that they’re just part of everything that goes on, which is what we wanted.”
The school raises money for the Autism Society of America’s Nassau-Suffolk chapter and has been fortunate enough to have some celebrity connections to help spread the word. Causeman said that it is the overall goal to make people aware of autism.
“Years ago no one knew that April was Autism Awareness month. We want people to be aware of the things associated with autism so they’re more comfortable around it,” said Causeman, adding that as a parent, part of that was learning about the disorder and understating that every person who has it is different. “If you see a behavior or say hello to someone and they don’t respond, what does that mean? It’s about making people comfortable in being around that and if something happens what they should do.”
If you ask any faculty member, alum or member of the community, they will tell you that the kids at MacArthur are compassionate, loving and accepting. At the young age of 15 and 16 years old, for students to volunteer their lunch periods and weekends to help others because they want to is an unbelievable act of selflessness.
“People with autism may be different but they think and feel and understand just like everyone else. They just express those things differently,” said Causeman. “We’ve done a great job, but it’s still going to take a lot of work and we’re not done yet.”
MacArthur will continue to hold activities and events throughout the month of April. As Sheehan put it, “It’s a sea of blue at Generals Nation.”