Going into high school is hard enough for your average teenager but it’s even more difficult for students with special needs. Palmetto High School senior Connor Cunningham is helping others like him by creating the educational movement called Stand in My Shoes.
The movement helps teach others about autism and foster understanding and tolerance.
“I’m considered high on the spectrum,” he says. “High Functioning autism. I have Asperger or Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
He started the organization as a freshman – an outgrowth of a paper he wrote detailing his experiences attending school with autism and the issues he faces. The paper got the attention of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).
“I joined the CARD center board so I could discuss the future of this community in terms of autism,” he says.
The issues detailed include things that most of us take for granted, like a school bell ringing and the sea of students in the hallway between classes.
“It was very overwhelming. Palmetto Middle gave me a lot of anxiety because it was big, but high school was worse,” Cunningham says. “I still have high sensory. The bell. If I hear a bell, and I’m next to it, it’s much louder than for anyone else. It gets to the point where it hurts my ear.”
He feared students might be antagonistic because of his differences, but he was happy to learn that they were actually very supportive. That led to giving informational speeches to interested groups, including school children.
“It’s just something I have to talk about, something I have to inform people about,” he says.
His goal is to explain autism and promote tolerance. In his speeches he shares his personal experience with autism symptoms and talks about the hard work necessary to make changes that allow him to succeed at school. He offers advice about friendship, being different and acceptance. The speeches help kids to ask questions and express themselves. And for adults, it helps them peek into the mind of a child who is not a typical student.
One of the speeches was to children at Sunny Isles K-8.
“They were doing this thing called Day of Tolerance,” he says. “I related to them by using humor and by using facts. When I was speaking just for the first time, I was nervous about the speaking thing, but also how the kids would take it.”
He’s also spoken at the GIFT Conference at Miami High and has been speaking staff members at the Children’s Trust.
“I was just talking to staff members who were about my age who were taking care of children with autism,” he says.
He also allowed two University of Miami students to make a film about him because they wanted to make a movie about someone with autism.
“They followed me around doing things for Sand in My Shoes,” he says. “They were talking to me, recording me.”
The film was shown on the Canes Film Festival in May and is expected to be shown in others.
This year, Cunningham joined the debate club.
“At first I was reluctant to join a club,” he says. “It’s kind of something I’ve been doing with a bunch of people.”
For college, Cunningham is applying to the University of Miami, FSU or Ringling College of Art and Design.
“I want to do motion picture studies or broadcast journalism,” he says. “I write scripts and dialogue in my spare time.”
Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld