Students raise autism awareness

Laque Youngblood, 13, of Naugatuck, speaks Thursday night on the Naugatuck Green about his struggles with autism. The autism awareness event was organized by City Hill Middle School, where Youngblood is a student. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Laque Youngblood, 13, of Naugatuck, speaks Thursday night on the Naugatuck Green about his struggles with autism. The autism awareness event was organized by City Hill Middle School, where Youngblood is a student. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Speaking boldly and confidently Thursday night from the gazebo on the Town Green, 13-year-old Laque Youngblood did not hold anything back about his struggles with autism.

He talked about being picked on and excluded from events with his peers, and about yearning for friendship and acceptance.

“My autism is only one aspect of my total character; it does not define me as a person,” he said. “I am a person with thoughts, feelings and many talents.”

Youngblood highlighted the importance of Thursday’s event, which was organized by the Wingman Program at City Hill Middle School. Wingman involves student leaders teaching their peers about teamwork, understanding and listening, empathy and inclusion.

More than 20 students in the Wingman program presented a program for about 100 people on the Green to bring awareness of autism. The program included speeches from students and educators, as well as music played by students. At the end, students turned on lights that colored the perimeter of the gazebo blue, the color for autism awareness. The gazebo, as well as other buildings around Naugatuck, will feature blue lights throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month.

Autism awareness has been taught this year at City Hill, the borough’s only public school for students in grades seven and eight, through Wingman, which honors the memory of 6-year-old Dylan Hockley. He was murdered during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.

Wingman is an offshoot of Dylan’s Wings of Change, which helps students with autism and other related conditions to reach their full potential. It is run by Dylan’s father, Ian Hockley, who chose City Hill as one of three schools in the state where he launched Wingman.

“Everybody can probably say they know someone in their family or circle of friends who has autism,” Hockley said. “But as Laque said, how do we move to acceptance and inclusion? And this is the challenge we face now. And how do we do that? We promote compassion and empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is feeling and experiencing. And not just for autism, but for all the perceived differences and disabilities that are within society.”

City Hill Middle School student John Greene, a Wingman student leader, said students in the program have taught teamwork through supporting the school’s vice principal, Lisa LaChance, when she ran a marathon for Wingman in the fall.

The students also taught empathy and compassion by collecting food for the local food bank, he said. And they taught inclusion by attending a Unified Sports event at Naugatuck High School where students with and without disabilities work together on a team, he said.

“We are hoping to continue the positive impact in our school, and in the community at large,” he said.

IF YOU GO

A macaroni-and-cheese dinner from 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday at City Hill Middle School will raise money for the Wingman Program and Dylan’s Wings of Change, which raises awareness about autism. Tickets, at $5, can be purchased at the door. There will be many door prizes and fun activities.