Flushing high school student earns second place in essay competition

isabella two
Photo courtesy of Sicilian

A Flushing high school student tied for second place in the fifth annual essay competition sponsored by Life’s WORC/The Family Center for Autism, Schneps Media and The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation. 

Isabella Sicilian, a 10th-grade student at Townsend Harris High School, tied for second place with Samantha Mack, an 11th-grade student from Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick. 

Sicilian won a monetary prize of $2,500 for her essay topic: “How Can I Lead My School and Community to Become a Bully-Free Place for Individuals With Autism and Developmental Disabilities.” 

To deal with the tie, the four judges decided to combine the second place and third place prize money to award each of the second place winners $2,500. 

Samantha Barbera, a 12th-grade student from Brentwood High School, won first place receiving $4,000. 

Approximately 71 students submitted their essays for the contest that was open to public and private schools from grades 9 through 12 from Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. Since the contest was launched, the organization has provided about $40,000 in awards to 16 students. 

Life’s WORC/The Family Center for Autism is a Garden City-based nonprofit agency established 50 years ago by Victoria Schneps, CEO and president of Schneps Media, with help from broadcast journalist icon Geraldo Rivera. 

The organization offers a variety of services and programs to some 2,000 people with developmental disabilities and autism. This includes a network of 43 group residences. 

Peter J. Klein, managing director of HighTower Advisors (Melville) and the president of The Claire Friedlander Family Foundation congratulated Sicilian on her winning essay. 

“We would like to congratulate you for stepping up and speaking out on a crisis affecting a number of today’s students: Incidents of bullying and how this can be prevented,” Klein said. “The number of you and your fellow students expressed through the written words you submitted have given our nonprofit organization an abundance of new ideas and fresh perspectives on how to respond to the bullying issue, especially as it relates to people with autism and developmental disabilities.”

See Sicilian’s essay below:

Journalist and novelist, Anatole French, once proclaimed that “nine tenths of education is encouragement.” We as a community can create spaces in schools and other learning centers that lead to environments in which students with autism and other developmental disabilities can feel encouraged to truly prosper. 

I can personally lead my school by advocating for students with autism and other developmental disabilities, and come up with new ideas for how to better my community to counter the issue of bullying.

One suggestion that would greatly aid the development of bully-free zones in schools would be the offering of classes and workshops that would educate students on how to treat those around them, specifically if they have developmental disabilities. Growing up, we are often told to “treat everyone equally” regardless of who they are.

However, sometimes, those with developmental disabilities may require special attention in order to form bonds with other people. For example, the National Autistic Society recommends that, when speaking to someone with autism, it is pertinent to “always use their name at the beginning [of your initial address] so that they know you are talking to them” (autism.org). In addition, the organization continues to say that when someone is showing signs of anxiety, it is important to use less non-verbal communication (eg eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body language)” (autism.org). However, skills like these are not required in the education of neurotypical students, specifically not in NYC, and can cause them to alienate themselves from people with autism. Not necessarily out of malice, but because they do not have the proper skills and techniques that would be beneficial in said communication to create new bonds and friendships.

By implementing workshops and classes in schools that could educate students on such techniques and could possibly be entirely run by volunteers, students will be able to do their part in helping include everyone in the school environment and also lessen the divide between students. Personally, I could help lead this effort of inclusion and unification by educating myself using trusted resources, such as websites and videos from professionals, to learn more about the techniques that could make it easier to form meaningful conversations with my peers who have developmental disabilities. This way I could form new friendships and comfort them if they ever feel isolated or alone.

Another recommendation to schools would be to pursue clubs such as “peer tutoring” for those with autism or other developmental disabilities. This would encourage interactions between those with autism or other developmental disabilities and those without and help, once again, lessen the divide that students may feel between one another. Clubs such as these will create a sense of togetherness and show students that our differences are what make us a unique and beautiful community.

By unifying different students in different classrooms, I can work toward the prevention of bullying in my school and community towards those with autism and other developmental disabilities. Unification can end this divide.