Grade 12 student Samuel López Matos was excited to go to his school's spring fling dance — but those feelings turned to unease when he actually showed up.
The bright lights and loud music made it "a sensory overload nightmare," said López Matos, who is on the autism spectrum.
"I couldn't stay and had to bail out early," he said.
López Matos is among a group of neurodiverse students at Horton High School near Wolfville, N.S, who are working hard to make their school a more inclusive place for students with autism.
He, along with his friend Kelly Dorman, took their concerns about the dance to their principal, who says the next event will be different.
"I don't mind doing this at all. I like it, but at the same time, I just really wish I didn't have to do it," López Matos said.
The students also launched a campaign for Autism Acceptance Month in April called "Red Instead," which was all about highlighting the experiences of students with autism, rather than the people around them like their teachers and parents.
They put up posters, handed out candy and shared videos about what it's really like to be on the autism spectrum.
"I believe that there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes that being autistic means that you aren't going to have good experiences or that you aren't going to have the same positive life that everybody else does and that just isn't true," said Dorman, who's in Grade 10.
April is over but the students say their work isn't done.
They want to see increased support for students with autism at Horton High, such as more quiet areas and a sensory room with dim lighting and sensory aids.
Principal Jodye Routledge said he's open to creating a sensory room at the school. He also admits "we had the whole dance thing backwards."
Rutledge said he's learning from the students and "they constantly remind us to try to be more proactive and not reactive."
"We listened and we talked about ways that in a future dance, we would make sure that those concerns were met," Routledge said.
"They brought up some very simple solutions … like if bright lights are involved, having sunglasses available, having noise-cancelling headphones, having a sensory room or a quiet space available."
Finding a community
One of the initiatives the students created last month was a video called "Autism by Autistics." It was reviewed thousands of times on Facebook.
Jake Lewis, an autism advocate who's in Grade 12 at Horton High, said "it was incredibly, incredibly pleasing to know that our voices had such an impact."
His mom works with teachers so they can better support neurodiverse students, and Lewis said that's partly why he was diagnosed with autism at a young age.
"As I've gotten older and gotten more aware of autism and the neurodivergent community, I've come to realize how lucky I am that my mom had the knowledge that she had and that I was ... diagnosed as early as I was so that I could get those supports," Lewis said.
Dorman had a very different experience. She was diagnosed with autism when she was 14.
"You spend your whole life knowing that you're different than everybody else," she said, "And to meet people like you and to have that friendship and that understanding is so amazing and so important, and more people should have that."
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