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Autistic students teach classmates about their condition

Like an ace pitcher, Jon Krzewinski didn't let his nerves affect his performance.

On Tuesday, he helped explain a little about autism to his fellow fifth-graders at Colfax Upper Elementary School. To convey his message, he shared some details about himself, among them that he's a baseball fanatic.

Jon is among the estimated 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with autism, a brain disorder more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined, according to Autism Speaks.

A number of school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley have sponsored or will sponsor events this month -- Autism Awareness Month -- to educate students about the disorder. Some schools had students create skits, deliver presentations or make posters to raise awareness.

In addition to Jon, there are two other boys in Mary Kate Speer's autistic support classroom at Colfax. Those students, fifth-graders Caleb Lamperski and Justin Evans, also shared information about themselves with their classmates.

Speer and Maria McCarrick, an autistic support aide at Colfax, told the students watching the presentation that Caleb, Jon and Justin were nervous about the event because it pulled them from their normal routine.

Jon admitted he was "happy, scared and nervous" about sharing. Whatever fear or uncertainty he dealt with wasn't obvious, though. He smiled the entire afternoon, and apparently enjoyed the attention.

Students said they enjoyed the presentation, notably because it helped them understand more about the three boys. Students like Brett Radovitch said they already knew that autism "has something to do with your mind."

Makenna Fink said she never knew — until yesterday — that the disorder can affect people to varying degrees. She remembered saying hello to an autistic classmate in first grade and having the student seemingly ignore her. She had to have her teacher explain why, she said.

Educators increasingly are turning to technology to help autistic students. At Colfax, for instance, Speer and McCarrick use an iPad to communicate with Caleb. It was the iPad that informed Caleb's classmates he's a huge fan of Dr. Seuss.

Students in every grade level at Colfax are to learn about autism this week, district spokeswoman Jan Zastawniak said.

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