By Dawn M. Chiossi
Mount Olive’s 16-year-old Siya Kulkarni sees the faces of the people behind Autism Spectrum Disorder, not just the condition. For her, the passion for autism awareness stems from a personal connection she’s had ever since she was five years old: the brother of a friend.
It began when she was in India visiting her grandmother during the summers and making friends with the girl who lived next door. As much as they enjoyed playing together, there was a rule that they could only play at Siya’s grandmother’s house. Siya found out the reason for this rule just two years ago; her friend’s brother had autism. He was not allowed to leave their house because his parents were afraid that he would be harassed, abused, and mistreated. He didn’t even attend school. What’s more, Siya’s friend never even mentioned him.
Knowing how isolated, frustrated, and utterly lonely the boy must have felt, Kulkarni says candidly, “I was shocked. It made me so sad. I never wanted another kid to feel that way.”
When returning to the United States, Siya instinctively knew that she had to be an advocate for children on the spectrum, to eradicate the stigmas about them.
That’s when she began Project EnAble, her Girl Scout Gold Award Project. Girl Scout Gold Award Projects are the highest achievement the Girl Scouts can receive, and their projects must be something that makes an impact for change.
Creating empathy and understanding about autism, especially for those not on the spectrum, Project EnAble focuses on changing perceptions. By education, inclusion, and acceptance, the project makes an inclusive environment for all.
The key was getting to all children early.
“No matter how hard I researched, I couldn’t locate educational resources for individuals who weren’t on the spectrum to learn about autism. Especially children. I recognized that this key population was not getting the education they needed,” Kulkarni explains. “Children aren’t born with a bias towards anyone; rather it is the lack of exposure that can cause hesitation to interact with a certain group of individuals for the fear of the unknown. Project EnAble is about diminishing that fear so that children can affect their own change and promote kindness towards those who are on the spectrum.”
Accepting that change is inevitable and can be harnessed for the better, Kulkarni’s project stresses that everyone is unique and different. “Being inclusive is a skill that once fostered can spread and be maintained for the rest of someone’s life,” she enthuses.
Over the last two years, this impressive project has touched over 52,000 lives and counting. Circulated all over the Mount Olive School District, younger Girl Scout troops, temples, Sunday schools, and various youth associations, Project EnAble also has made an impact globally.
Creating many resources, Project EnAble offers so much: an interactive online game, slideshow, informational brochures, and an animated video that she has shared with both local and global communities. Additionally, she founded the Project EnAble Youth Ambassador (P.E.Y.A) Program. It calls for driven teenagers to use Project EnAble resources and spread the outreach of the program. Kulkarni also made Project EnAble virtual, so autism awareness is just a click away.
The interactive game is both intriguing and empathetic: It features questions that ask the audience what they would do in certain scenarios around someone who has autism. Putting them in the shoes of that person, they are required to stimulate their thinking and mindsets. “The game forces players to think about these autistic kids. It clears up their fear, creates connection.”
The result is obvious; children with special needs are not rare or strange; they just want what everyone else wants: to be accepted.
Working closely with Mount Olive’s Sharon Staszak, Supervisor of Special Education in the school district, her project advisor, Margarita Malave, and a whole team, Kulkarni is awed by the whole experience. “It has been phenomenal,” she says. “After the implementation of Project EnAble at one of the schools in New Jersey, one of the young girls in the audience whose older sister was on the spectrum came up to me afterward and pulled me aside. She simply looked at me with wide eyes and whispered, “Thank you.” For the first time, she felt that her voice was heard.”
The result was a full-circle moment for Kulkarni. “I realized that what I had initially set out to do- acting as an advocate for my friend’s brother in India – was having an impact halfway across the world, in my own community. This project was enabling change so that children on the spectrum were no longer just looked at, but seen.”
“Project EnAble is so much more than a Girl Scout Project,” Kulkarni prides, “It’s a testament to the incredible people on the spectrum. It strives to help others see that despite our differences, we are all human beings. At the end of the day, we all eat, sleep, breathe, and laugh. Autism doesn’t have to hide in the depths of the unknown. By educating our communities, Project EnAble helps them discover a new mindset and can help them see past a person’s label to recognize their able.”
For further information or details on Project EnAble, please contact email@example.com