A St. Ann’s Academy student is combining her flair for art with compassion for the developmentally challenged to make the world a little more accessible to kids with autism.
Elisa Pierrot graduates from St. Ann’s this year, and she leaves behind the colourful toys she created to help students in the autism spectrum connect with songs, feelings, words and concepts.
Elisa was eager to help when her mother Joanna Pierrot asked for items to help illustrate lyrics during Joanna’s weekly volunteer music therapy work with St. Ann’s autistic kids.
“I like helping little kids and making them happy,” said the 17-year-old. “I know colourful things and cute things make them happier and make them understand more.”
What she came up with was more than anyone had imagined.
The school’s certified educational assistants assigned to the five autistic children in the school have seen the beneficial effects of Elisa’s creations.
“The importance of visuals in Shanna’s life (for example) is critical,” said Lauraine Wakely, St. Ann’s learning centre co-ordinator. “It’s so important to her life.”
The toys include a dozen felt hand puppets including a dog, tiger, pig, duck, cat and other animals. Joanna, who is doing her practicum at St. Ann’s to be a certified educational assistant, uses these to help kids learn spatial concepts by placing the puppet on a child’s hand and singing a version of If You’re Happy and You Know It.
Elisa also created about a dozen 30-centimetre-tall cardboard cutout figures depicting a wide range of emotions from happy to sad, strong to scared.
“So the question, ‘How are you feeling today?’ Well, now they have something to look at and understand in their mind, ‘I’m feeling happy,’ ” said Wakely.
The teachers use several other visual tools to help children express themselves and understand the world around them, such as plastic cards each illustrating an item or idea. A new iPad program designed for the non-verbal has opened up the world like nothing else, according to teacher Michelle Maisonneuve.
And what Elisa’s creations bring is a tactile element along with the visual, said Maisonneuve.
One creation involves small creatures children can pull off of a Velcro background as they learn to take turns, improve dexterity and count along while Joanna sings The Ants go Marching Two-by-Two.
“Each of the kids when we’re having music can count each one,” said Maisonneuve. “It’s a good feeling, they can pull it, take it, hold onto it.”
Among Elisa’s inspirations for helping developmentally challenged children was her close relationship to her great-aunt Mary Abate, who was non-verbal with Down syndrome. She died a few months ago.
“Me and my cousin used to hang out with her all the time,” said Elisa. “It was so fun to make her laugh and we would teach her how to do things like high five. And she always had little stuffies she would hold up and we’d play with.”
The experience with her great-aunt taught Elisa what stimulates and engages those with cognitive issues, and the results have impressed school staff at all levels.
“I’ve been in special education for many years and I’ve never seen anything this engaging,” said Wakely. “Somebody of this age to come along and to create such beautiful, inviting supports for these children…”
Wakely said St. Ann’s is eager to offer education to more children with developmental challenges as it expands related programs.
In the meantime, Elisa intends to continue on her path of incorporating art and education.
“I’m not sure what I want to teach yet. But I’ve always loved teaching and art. So I’m going into a Bachelor of Arts at TRU.”