People with autism are often sensitive to outside inputs like loud noises, fast movements, and social interaction, which makes physical education class not a great place for children on the spectrum. But a program at Illinois State University is helping students on the spectrum overcome the challenges of P.E.
The program is called Jon's Heroes. The P.E. program is in honor of the late Jon Miskulin, a Bloomington native with Asperger's, a condition on the autism spectrum. When Jon was a student, P.E was his toughest class. Jon's mother Geralyn Miskulin said the length of his showers showed how bad his day was. Jon struggled to find acceptance among classmates.
In 2007, these hurdles motivated Jon to advocate for acceptance of students on the spectrum. At age 14, he created a foundation to inform Bloomington-Normal about autism. A few years later Jon renamed his foundation H.E.A.L., Heroes Embracing Autistic Lives. He wanted to use his musical talent and passion for children on the spectrum to uplift spirits and encourage them to embrace the unique abilities that set them apart from their neuro-standard classmates.
Jon passed away six years ago at age 20 from a brain injury. His mother continued his legacy by starting the Jon's Heroes program.
Illinois State University associate professor Mary Henninger runs the program. Henninger met Jon's mother four years ago when Henninger asked Miskulin to speak to students.
“She talked a lot about how P.E. was the worst part of his day and he came home feeling like he was beat up even though it wasn’t physical beat up,” Henninger said. “He would take a shower and the length of the shower everyday determined how bad it was. And I thought teachers can’t possibly be doing this. So they must not understand what it means to have autism and to work with a child on the spectrum.”
Henninger said after that class she knew something needed to change. She got involved in bringing the program to ISU to work with children on the spectrum. ISU students work with school kids ages 5 to 15 in P.E. class at McCormick Hall.
Children with autism often experience social, communication, and behavioral challenges. In a gymnasium during P.E., students sensory issues and distractions peak. The flickering of fluorescent lights, equipment constantly moving around, and interaction with peers can be overwhelming for students on the spectrum.
Nikki Michalak is a research coordinator for the Illinois Center for Specialized Professional Support. Michalik said the extra help that students receive in Jon's Heroes isn't provided in a typical P.E. class.
“The instruction that’s provided is provided verbally and it’s not broken down,” Michalak said. “It’s not broken down at the level that some of our students might need those tasks or activities broken down. When we teach a larger skill, we might need to break it down into smaller components, and that’s going to look different for each student. It benefits the students in so many different ways.”
Henninger continues to preserve Jon's legacy by emphasizing his message to children with autism—that they are heroes and just what it means to be a hero.
“Anybody he met, he was certain that everybody had a superpower, so that’s where the heroes came from,” Henninger said. “Everybody was a hero to him and he wanted everyone to be a hero in terms of accepting each other.”
The heroes receive one-on-one training from one of the college students who are hero leaders in the program. ISU students Anthony Toro and Kira Machiejewski work at Jon's Heroes as part of a requirement for the Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) major.
Toro says his experience at Jon's Heroes strengthened his relationship with the students.
“Comparing this experience to my other teaching experiences in the P.E. program, I didn’t get to develop a relationship with my other students,” Toro said. “When I was with my student, he made me feel important everyday. Everyday I knew I had to give my utmost energy and effort to match their energy, if not exceed it in order to make this happen.”
For Machiejewski, she learned to embrace the uniqueness of each student in the class.
“I think you really start to learn that every student is so different,” Machiejewski said. “Their interest, their abilities, the things that they want to do. It really is different for every student and I think that’s something that we’ll remember going into the real world when we get full time teaching positions is that no student is alike.”
Aaron Beaty, a student in Jon's Heroes, says he enjoys the one-on-one training from the hero leaders geared towards students like him.
“The people are really nice here,” Beaty said. “They like to learn about autism. One of the other things is that it’s in a gym which means we have lots of room to run, play, and have fun activities to do. We get to have a one on one or two on one (with the hero leaders).”
Henninger said that the best way for aspiring teachers to be equipped for working with students on the spectrum is to be open to working with them.
“More exposure to children with disabilities, rather it be autism or any other disability,” Henninger said. “Most of the hesitancy by new teachers to work with kids on the spectrum is lack of knowledge. Once you start working with these kiddos, you go ‘Wow, these are really cool kids just like every other kid.’”
Since the start of Jon’s Heroes, Michalak said the kids are adjusting well to the program.
“I have seen kids who don’t enjoy being active or engaging in physical activity put it on their schedules each week and come back excited,” Michalak said. “They look forward to coming back, their happy to come back, and that whole change in attitude is everything.”
Toro says that at the end of the day, it's all about treating students on the spectrum with respect.
Michalak adds the program has been a relief to parents who need extra support system for their kids. Moms and Dads even form relationships with other parents. She says she also wants people to understand despite the social challenges children on the spectrum face, students on the spectrum have the ability to be successful. They can communicate and still have feelings.
Jon's Heroes serves over 25 kids per year. They range across the spectrum in their abilities. The free class runs Mondays and Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. in ISU's McCormick Hall.
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