By Kim Walter
According to 12-year-old Mackenzie Schubert, "Autistic people are special in their own way."
Mackenzie, who just completed the sixth grade at Signal Knob Middle School, decided to take her personal experience with autism, and encourage her classmates to "stop and think" before making fun of kids like her.
She was diagnosed at age 4, and was just a few points away from being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, according to her mother, Kimberlee Schubert.
Schubert said from the moment Mackenzie was born, it was obvious something was "a little different" about her. The doctors almost thought she had Down syndrome since she displayed some common physical features.
"Mackenzie didn't walk until she was 2 or 2 1/2, and it took her a long time to start talking," Shubert said Tuesday afternoon. However, with the help of an Individualized Education Program, and the 504 Plan, her daughter was able to keep up in school.
While she struggles with learning directly from a book, hands-on activities seem to stick with Mackenzie.
Schubert said her daughter is highly functioning on the autism spectrum, but her real struggle is in the interactions she has with kids her age.
"Mackenzie can definitely make friends, she has no problem walking up and talking to other kids," Schubert said. "It's keeping those friends that's hard."
Because of her daughter's emotional tendencies, Schubert said Mackenzie can come off as being a little "overbearing" when she tries to make new friends.
Schubert said her daughter is an easy target for bullies, especially in a world where "everyone gets made fun of."
"She has a little speech impediment, and she has to wear the GPS around her ankle because she wanders away some nights when she sleeps," Schubert said. "She struggles with ticks sometimes too, and kids just don't understand."
Schubert said finding out about the bullying is a task in itself -- Mackenzie doesn't like to tell her mom or teachers about confrontation with other students. But when Schubert does hear about it, she said she always goes to a teacher.
If nothing is done, Schubert said she goes to the school counselor, and then to the principal if necessary.
"I bet they hate hearing my name in the front office, but I can't help it," she said. "Mackenzie won't stand up for herself ... that's something that's very hard for her to do. So what else am I supposed to do as a parent?"
There are a few teachers who Schubert said support her daughter, and make sure to listen and keep an eye out. One even helped Mackenzie take a stand against the bullies in her own way.
April was Autism Awareness Month, and when Mackenzie found out, she decided to write down her feelings and ask that other students simply be nice.
"I wasn't surprised when she told me she wanted to do that," Schubert said. "Mackenzie is very creative, and she does like to take things into her own hands."
After the letter was finished, Mackenzie asked her teacher, Carissa Altizer, to read it out loud to the class. The thought of standing up in front of her peers made the girl nervous.
"It felt good to hear it read out loud, and every one said they liked it," Mackenzie said.
As far as what prompted Mackenzie to write the letter, it is pretty simple.
"I was mad. I was sad," she said. "Some kids think I'm weird and they make fun of me, and then they tell other kids not to be friends with me."
Mackenzie and her mother say they both would like to see more education efforts on autism throughout the school year. In particular, Schubert also would like some kind of support group for other parents of children with autism or other disabilities.
"It'd be nice to meet with these parents who understand what I'm going through," she said. "I'm curious how they deal with their kids being bullied ... what do they tell their kids to do? Who do they talk to? How do they solve the problem?"
Schubert said she has a feeling the problem probably will never go away entirely, but she still hopes to see more education and awareness about autism - both to benefit local students and teachers.
"Like Mackenzie wrote, the students just need to be more tolerant, and understand that kids like Mackenzie can't control some of the things they do or the way they act," she said.
Mackenzi wrote, "Just because [someone is] autistic, does not mean they are dumb or broken. I think people who have autism are cool. I think when you are around people who have autism you can learn a lot about autism."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org