With the seriousness and sincerity that sometimes only children can summon, the entire third grade at Bernards Township's Cedar Hill Elementary School gathered in an outdoor courtyard on Tuesday morning to recognize World Autism Awareness Day and decorate a tree with blue ribbons covered with personal messages.
"It all begins with understanding," Cedar Hill Principal Joseph Mollica told a group of gathered third graders who participated in that particular activity to learn about autism and what it means for others.
Mollica noted that everyone faces challenges, and those with autism face certain challenges every day of their lives.
"It's not easy for them to make friends. In many cases, it's not easy for them to speak," he told the students.
The principal encouraged the students to take the time and patience to "discover what's inside each of our classmates with autism," or "You will be missing with something."
"How are you being helpful?" he asked the students.
"Understanding is not enough," Mollica said, as he explained that autism is a developmental disorder that is on the rise in frequency.
He said he hopes the students with go on to become advocates for finding a cure and preventing autism in the future. He said he hoped they would bring forth influence both in their daily lives and through government to address autism, and perhaps seek ways for its future prevention.
"We are wearing blue, but we are going to do so much more," Mollica told the students.
Afterward, Mollica said that all of the district's schools were in some way recognizing World Autism Awareness Day, and that students at all schools had been urged to wear blue, a symbol of that awareness.
Classroom doors were also decorated in blue on Tuesday, Mollica said. In addition, teachers would be showing the video "Light It Up Blue," mostly to students in grades 3 to 5, he said.
After the ribbons were tied on the tree, Kevin Landadio, on his way back to his classroom, said that he found the ceremony to be fun, but he also came away with the knowledge that those with autism "have to face a lot of challenges."
"We shouldn't take them for granted," Meghan Ford, another third grader, said.
Ean Stolzer, another student who brought a ribbon to tie on the tree, said students should understand that those with autism can't help having it. "I hope they find a cure for it," he added.
Most of the students wore at least one blue article of clothing, even if jeans, in varying shades of blue. The ribbons were written out with messages such as, "You are my true friend."