Valuing Differences

C.J. Morris students write friendship book for special needs class

By Kelli Gile

WALNUT–Two C.J. Morris Elementary 3rd graders believe that everyone has a right to have friends, especially students with autism.

Nyla Rivera and Kailyn Park feel so strongly that they’ve written a book to support special needs students on their campus.

Last year as a 2nd grader, Rivera noticed a few students sitting alone at recess and lunchtime.

One boy was even quietly talking to himself, while another child replied a gruff “leave me alone” when she offered a hello.

Rivera didn’t understand why.

“I would see them so quiet, just waiting for a friend,” the eight-year-old explained.

“This year, I found out they have autism and they need friends.”

The eight-year-old decided to take action. She recruited her best friend and classmate, Kailyn, and the two girls quickly began spending their free time with kids in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) class.

“Now they know we’re not strangers,” said nine-year-old Park.

“And little by little, they began to trust us and started talking to us.”

This month, the girls collaborated on another project together.

They’ve written “Everyone Has a Right” and are currently completing illustrations to honor the dozen students in Rochelle Mortensen’s ASD class.

They recently offered the students a “sneak preview” of their gift.

“It was a huge thing when they got the book. They really appreciated it,” Park said.

The story is intended to be an encourager for the students to make friends.

“If you try, you can do it!” Park says in the story.

Making friends is a real challenge for our students with autism, Mortensen explained.

Students identified on the spectrum are impacted in their development of social and communication skills.

“We have social lessons every morning. But with students like Nyla and Kailyn, they can practice these skills and learn to fit in,” she added.

“These two girls have a special bond with the students and wanted to brighten their day with this book,”3rd grade teacher Shayleen Ojeda said.

“They are such amazing students with so much empathy.”

Once the drawings are complete, Ojeda plans to have the book professionally printed and bound, and offer copies for sale.

All proceeds will be donated to special needs classes in Walnut Valley USD.

“It’s very exciting,” said Mortensen who has promised to purchase copies for each of her students.

One ASD student recently announced “You’re going to be my best friends forever!” Park shared.

“He doesn’t like a lot of things, but he likes us.”

“It feels good!” said Rivera.

“They know we’re not bullies and we like them just as they are.”