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Education Station: Strongsville teen creates communication board for preschoolers with autism

Billy Williams' Eagle Scout project is a game-changer for non-verbal and verbally-limited children with autism. Children communicate by pointing to how they feel.

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio — A Strongsville teen created a communication board to help children with autism express themselves. 

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Billy Williams, an Eagle Scout, came up with the idea because he wanted to help kids who have trouble finding the words to let other know how they are feeling.

About 1 in 44 US children is on the autism spectrum. Boys are four times more likely than girls to have the disorder. 17 year old Billy, a senior at Strongsville High, calls himself "high-functioning and exceptional". He has a near-genius IQ in the 130s, which is in the top 1%.

"I felt that [the board] really hit home, due to me being on the autism spectrum. I'm lucky. I get good grades in school, I can communicate my feelings, I can say what I need. Some people can't, especially kids," says WIlliams.

Billy's communication board was an Eagle Scout project. He created it to help some of the youngest on the autism spectrum, who may have a little trouble talking out their feelings.

"It works with prompting. You'll say, like, “Ok, let’s come over and look and talk about how you feel. If they’re yelling or crying, we can go through and say 'Are you sad or mad?'" says preschool teacher Hanna Keohn.

Billy’s board is located on the playground at Strongsville’s early learning preschool, just over the hill from the high school. It has become a beacon of hope for its students with autism – a little wooden world of common site words with matching pictures.

"They would be able to formulate a sentence or tell you where they wanna go by pointing at the picture," says Billy. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction”. It’s usually evident before age 3 and can adversely affect a child's educational performance.

"There are some people who can’t speak well, and it really hurts them," says Billy.

With Billy's board, non-verbal preschoolers or those with limited speech can easily communicate to teachers and each other in a clear, colorful way.

"We show the picture 'I feel happy' or 'I feel sad' and you can say 'Oh, so and so, you feel sad because you want a turn on the swing? Well, let’s see what else we can do' or 'Let’s set the timer and wait a minute,'" says Keohn.

The ease of seemingly simple exchanges like that, says Billy, is the magic behind his board.

"They don’t really feel happy because people can’t understand what they want. But with this board, it will help them be on a more level field. It’s something that I kinda wish I had a bit earlier on," says Billy.

Billy has plans to work with other schools to create their own communication boards. Ohio has one of the lower autism rates in the nation. Less than 2% of children in the state are on the spectrum.


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