Since first grade, Alex Bittner has started each school year by talking to his classmates about how his brain works differently than theirs. Together with his mom, he answers questions about why he sometimes paces in the back of the room or why hearing the teacher read a violent scene from a novel can make him feel like he’s going to throw up.
By fifth grade, he was already a seasoned pro at explaining autism to his peers. So when the opportunity arose to tell his story for a local arts contest, he had plenty to say about what it’s like to be different — and why he loves it.
Using Scratch to convert his hand-drawn comics into animations, he created a two-minute video aimed at helping people understand and accept autism. In voiceover, he described how it feels to be sensitive to sounds and temperatures, how pacing helps him think, and why he likes crunchy foods (because mushy foods make him gag).
“I just wanted people to know about me and respect me more for who I am,” says Alex, now 12 and a middle school student in Henrico County, Virginia. “It’s important because I feel like everyone is equal. But people don’t treat each other equally, absolutely not, and I hate it.”
Imbued with a deep sense of empathy, Alex gets angry when he sees people being insensitive to each other’s needs. Digital storytelling offers a way to channel his frustration into making a difference by sharing his message of acceptance — and make a difference it has. Not only did his video win second place in the contest, but it spread across the internet, gaining well over 70,000 views on YouTube and Facebook from followers as far away as Seattle.
“I’m super proud of him,” says his mom, Jennifer Bittner. “He doesn’t see being autistic as a bad thing. He recognizes the struggles and doesn’t gloss over it in any way, but he accepts it as a part of who he is and sees the ways autism has made his life more interesting and even enhanced his brain.”
Self-acceptance through digital storytelling
Equipped with little more than a tablet and Scratch, Alex embarked on a quest to help others understand and accept him. In the process, he ended up gaining a deeper appreciation of himself.
While digital storytelling offers a host of educational benefits, from fostering collaboration to developing critical thinking to creating a constructivist learning environment, its arguably most powerful effect lies in its ability to help students explore different parts of themselves and reflect on their own thoughts. Researchers have concluded that creating digital stories can encourage self-expression and help students develop confidence. It also plays a key role in building empathy — something today’s students will sorely need as they become stewards of powerful technologies with profound implications for humanity.
“Telling our story is an essential part of our humanness,” says Edutopia contributor Bob Dillon. “It allows us to feel part of the community that knows our story, and it fosters empathy for those that surround us. Story is a powerful force in shaping mental models, motivating and persuading others, and teaching the lessons of life.”
Telling stories and communicating complex ideas is also the hallmark of the Creative Communicator standard within the ISTE Standards for Students, which directs students to publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for a specific audience.
For Alex, digital storytelling has helped him better understand his own brain. When he first learned of his diagnosis, “I didn’t really know what it meant,” he says. “I wasn’t upset, just kind of confused. I brushed it off as something pointless. But when I learned more about it and learned more about myself, I was like, ‘Whoa, I am cool.’ ”
Telling his story through digital tools encouraged Alex to consider the benefits as well as the struggles that come with being different — like being able to compose entire sequences of code in his head or come up with solutions to math problems even the teacher never thought of.
Being different, he concluded, is something to celebrate.
“Being the same as everyone else is boring, and I do not like it,” he says. “I feel like you need some variety in your life.”
Empowering kids to make an impact
Not only has Alex’s video helped his classmates better understand autism, but its online reach has enabled Alex to help other children diagnosed with autism understand and accept themselves.
“We’ve been contacted by more than one parent who said it helped their child understand their diagnosis,” says Alex’s mom, Jennifer Bittner.
Kids who cried inconsolably upon first hearing the news perked up after listening to Alex matter-of-factly describe autism. One little girl put the video on repeat and begged her mom for a play date so Alex could eat all the crunchy foods and she could eat all the mushy foods.
“It feels kind of weird because I never thought I’d be able to make this kind of impact,” Alex says. “It has really inspired me to try and do something great.”
He wants to write graphic novels when he grows up. Each one will, in some way, be about individuality — a topic he feels passionately about.
“I just feel like no matter how different you are from everyone else, you can do just as great things.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.