A learning experience
Students from a variety of different schools including École La Croisée and Russell Public School were in attendance at the ceremony to honour their fellow classmates with autism. They learned firsthand what it’s like to live with autism. Glover photo

Hoisted into the sky
Despite the cold temperatures, everyone eagerly gathered outside the Russell Township building to raise the Autism Flag for the seventh year in a row.
Glover photo

EMBRUN – The month of April has been declared Autism Awareness Month to help open the public’s eyes on the developmental disorder, how it works and what it could be like for someone who deals with it everyday.

However, events like Embrun’s annual Autism Flag Raising at the Russell Township building Mon., April 1, aims to educate students (and anyone else who wants to participate) that autism doesn’t have to be viewed as a disorder but simply something to peacefully live with.

“We are here to recognize autism awareness by raising the flag together,” said Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux. “With your participation, we are helping to augment the public’s awareness to those who are living with autism and their families.”

The cases of autism in youth has grown quite a bit over the past few years, with one in 68 children showing symptoms of the condition. Organizer and teacher at École élémentaire catholique Embrun Pavillon La Croisée, Jennifer Geigel has been organizing this event for the past seven years since Autism Ontario delivered flags to all the municipalities.

“Our attendance has gone up so much since our first year,” she said. “The first year we did this, we had about seven or eight people and then the next year, we grew to about 20 people and now we’re practically filling up the whole room with people standing at the back.”

This year, Geigel wanted to put a spotlight on girls with autism because it’s an issue that is not talked about very often as only 1 in 5 people with autism are female. To help honour these women, Geigel brought in some female speakers to talk about their experiences with autism.

Melanie Villeneuve, who was diagnosed with autism and Asperger Syndrome at the age of 35, spoke about what it’s like to live with these conditions and that it’s not something that can and should hold anyone back from living life to the fullest.

“I was 35 when I was diagnosed with my symptoms and I also have a severe anxiety disorder that I take medication for, otherwise I could not do the speech today,” she said, addressing the room. “I wanted to explain what it feels like to be autistic, for example, the neon lights in this room are so bright that everything is blurry. It’s also echoey in this room and I feel all the energy of the people in this room. That is why we often retreat to our little rooms and corners because when we go into crowds, it’s just too much.”

She continued, “It’s important to be able to explain how autism works and every autistic person might feel it differently but we’re also very gifted. We might feel a lot about you and the world, and we can’t always voice it but we have our gifts and passions. Some say we’re not passionate or hard-headed, but we’re also gifted. We have downsides but we also have upsides, it’s about developing that gift and making us feel proud about ourselves and sharing that pride with the rest of the world. Even though the world can be full of hatred and unjust actions, autistic people are like the rainbows between that.”

As the flag was hoisted up the pole for another successful year, the crowd cheered, and the smiles were wide. While living with autism is not a simple task, it can be made a little easier with helpful hands who understand the journey.

“In our first year, we had only seven people participating in this event and with it constantly growing and growing, I am so proud of what it has become,” said Geigel. “This is kind of like my baby and I’m really lucky be part of it.”