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Bennington Elementary first graders Curtis Harrington and Eva Cross play with a puppet during a school presentation on autism.
Bennington Elementary first graders Curtis Harrington and Eva Cross play with a puppet during a school presentation on autism.
Bennington Elementary first graders Curtis Harrington and Eva Cross play with a puppet during a school presentation on autism. (Elizabeth A. Conkey)

BENNINGTON -- Acceptance and friendship were common themes at Bennington Elementary Friday as members of "Puppets in Education," a Burlington-based nonprofit organization, visited the school to present the "Friend 2 Friend" autism awareness program to students throughout the day.

According to Karen Newman, one of the three Puppets in Education staff members and puppeteers present Friday, the Friend 2 Friend autism awareness workshops, funded by the Vermont Agency of Education, are designed to not only educate children about autism, but also to help children understand the concept of "differences" in their peers.

"It kind of ‘demystifies' autism and shows kids that everyone has strengths and weaknesses -- that's what's so great about the world," she said. "It's important for them to know that people have things they're good at and things they're not so good at. Knowing how to accept that is really important."

Students of every grade engaged in the program, watching as Newman and her fellow puppeteers, Deb Lyons and Sarah Vogelsang-Card played the parts of Freddie, an autistic student, Mrs. Beaks, an encouraging teacher, and Crystal, a student hoping to befriend Freddie, but uneasy and unsure of how to engage him.

Throughout the presentation, students learned from Mrs. Beaks, along with Crystal, what were known as the "Seven Friendship Tips," or positive ways to interact with autistic children.

The students learned to:

* Use short sentences, gesture and wait -- to make processing information easier for their peer.


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* Watch their friend -- to learn the things that he or she is good at or likes to do

* Give their friend choices -- when asking that friend to play.

* Ask their friend questions -- like, "Will you sit beside me," and "Will you play with me?"

* Use "friendly" words

* Accept differences -- in themselves and in others

"A lot of this program really focuses on the friendship tips for autistic children but they are really universal for all kids, whether they are on the (autism) spectrum or not," Lyons said. "We always hear back from teachers who say the tips are useful in the classroom because they can be used all the time and with everybody."

Following the presentation, students were asked to recall the friendship tips and were encouraged to discuss the strengths, weaknesses and differences among their own classmates.

"Accepting differences is really one of the most important things we try to get across to the kids," Vogelsang-Card said. "We want them to know that everyone has a different mind."

Students were then given the opportunity to participate in a "pass the puppet" activity, during which time 18 puppets were distributed throughout the audience for students to practice using the seven "friendship tips" with their peers.

Lyons said this segment of the workshop served as an opportunity for students to "transfer" the knowledge they had learned from the presentation.

"The kids actually have kinetic time with the puppets and can use them to talk to their neighbor," she said. "It's a different mode of assimilation."

Vogelsang-Card noted that this year marked the third year that she and her fellow puppeteers have visited Bennington Elementary to present the autism awareness program.

"I think it's been well received by all of the age groups," she said. "The kids have really responded fantastically."

Lyons said the lessons learned during the workshop will go beyond the presentation.

Handouts and a follow-up curriculum packet were distributed to teachers as students filed out, as well as educational literature for parents.

"They (the materials) help continue the conversation that we started here," she said. "Teachers can continue it in their classrooms and parents can continue it at home -- the learning just continues."

According to the program literature distributed to teachers and parents, one in every 150 people falls on the autism spectrum.

Lyons said Puppets in Education's autism awareness program is one of the most requested programs throughout Vermont's schools.

In addition to autism awareness, Puppets in Education also presents 23 other programs relating to issues in school-wide bullying, environmentalism, and drug and alcohol use. 

To learn more about the puppets in education program, visit puppetsineducation.org.

Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com or follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.