If students at Goldwood Primary and Kensington Intermediate schools seem a little blue on Friday, it’s for a good cause.
They are being encouraged to wear the color to show support for their classmates and children worldwide with autism and in observance of World Autism Day Saturday. The idea came about from a suggestion by Jennifer Bunt, a Rocky River artist and mother of an autistic child. The “Light It Up Blue” campaign is sponsored by Autism Speaks, which advocates research and funding for autism.
Bunt recalled, in a recent interview, that she first suspected something was different about her middle daughter Madeline, now 9, through her first attempts at walking. “She did what we called ‘the stapler,’ where she would kind of bounce across the room on her knees. For the longest time, she didn’t walk,” continued Bunt.
Madeline eventually walked at the age of 18 months, but Bunt did not become truly concerned until younger daughter Olivia, now 8, began making connections her older sister did not. “I thought, ‘There’s something missing.’ I’m an educator, how come I’m not seeing this?” she recalled. At the time, she was teaching art at Magnificat High School.
Bunt said her “ah-ha” moment came
during a trip to a local Target store, when the girls were 4 and 3 years old. “Olivia recognized the store and said ‘Oh, we’re at Target’, and Madeline just said ‘What?’” she remembered.
After a visit to the pediatrician and the Cleveland Clinic Autism Center, Madeline was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or PDDNOS, a form of high-functioning autism. “I suspected she might have autism because she didn’t look at people and played only alone. But I think believing your child has autism and actually hearing it are two different things. It’s very real and very devastating,” said Bunt. She compared the condition to having a headache in that you can’t see the pain, but it is there.
Bunt said she is concerned about that pain, especially as her daughter nears adolescence. “I’m nervous for her. She will understand she is different from her peers,” commented Bunt, who said even now, she asks why her sister gets invited to so many birthday parties. As a result, Bunt has started a blog called “Fasten Her Seat Belt,” for parents of autistic daughters. “These are stories about how we’re going to get through this together,” she said.
Bunt describes Madeline as nurturing and “an amazing artist.” In fact, her children have inspired many of her custom-made jewelry pieces. Oldest daughter Claire, now 21, who accompanied Bunt to her classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art, drew a picture of the family’s first home, which became Bunt’s initial work, and the start of “Clairewear.” She said would sometimes use the kitchen as her metalworking studio. “After a couple of chemical spills, my husband said that maybe I needed my own space,” laughed Bunt, who now runs her Magic Dog Studio (named for family pet Daisy the Magic Dog) out of a room in her home designated for her metalwork.
Bunt’s lines of jewelry include “Thumbprints,” made from clients’ actual prints, and the “Family Necklace,” where each member is portrayed by a charm based on a child’s drawing. She said this piece was based on Olivia’s rendering of “potato people” at age 3.
To observe the Autism Awareness month of April, Bunt is offering her “Hope for Autism” pendant, from her Awareness/ Message line.
She explained that the butterfly in the piece symbolizes hope, change and transition, and is created from the internationally recognized symbol for autism, the puzzle piece. She is donating 20 percent of each sale to Autism Speaks.
“I wanted to make people more aware. At this time it’s important to put effort into finding therapies, and finding things to help,” said Bunt, who says she does not believe, as some parents, that autism is the result of vaccinations. She feels the condition could be hereditary or environmental, as she has a cousin with the condition, and Bunt works with chemicals.
“I’m pushing for awareness in grade schools. The kids are still open, and can accept others,” said Bunt of her own campaign for awareness, adding, “Understanding leads to friendship.”
Visit Bunt’s blog at www.fastenherseatbelt.com.