A girl in Texas went the extra mile to introduce her brother with autism to the rest of her classmates — and now, her message of kindness is spreading around the world.
With the help of her mom, 11-year-old Elli van Bree made a video about her brother, Willem, a first grader with autism who was attending the same school as her for the first time.
According to Elli and Willem’s mother, Tania, Willem was diagnosed with autism when he was 16 months old. Tania van Bree said the family hired a physical therapist when Willem wasn’t able to sit up during his 9-month checkup.
“They kind of noticed the red flags for autism and we went along that ride,” she said.
Willem’s autism presents with speech apraxia, a condition where the brain and speech muscles don’t cooperate properly. Instead, he uses a tablet to communicate in school.
As Elli put it in the video for her class: “He has words in his head like everyone else. His brain just doesn’t cooperate the way he wants. It gets frustrating for him, but he still makes tons of sounds to practice.”
Since Elli has been in kindergarten, her mother has tried to speak to her class each year during Autism Acceptance Month and introduce Willem.
“What I’ve found is that teachers are not able to share information about anybody’s diagnosis because of HIPAA,” Tania van Bree said. “They’re kind of restrained unless there’s a big school effort to talk about it in a very general way. So I thought, ‘I’m a parent. I give permission.’”
Tania wasn’t able to speak to Elli’s class last year due to the pandemic. While classes have resumed this year, her school is continuing to limit visitors. But she still wanted to get the word out about autism awareness, especially considering Willem had just started first grade at Elli’s school.
That’s where the video came in. While her mom says Elli is naturally shy, she has plenty of experience making videos to sell Girl Scout cookies, where she’s led her troop in sales.
“I said, ‘hey, why don’t we make this video and we do it the way we do Girl Scout cookies?’” Tania said.
Tania helped Elli write a script and held it up for Elli to read. She then helped her edit together the video, and asked Elli’s teacher to play it for the class.
In the video, Elli offers advice to her classmates about how to interact with a person with autism. She encouraged her friends to stop and say hello, to stay patient with Willem and to speak up if they see him being bullied.
The video was a hit.
“Everybody, at least in Elli’s classes, actually stood up and clapped after the video,” Tania said.
Elli’s teacher is also in charge of the school’s announcements, so he played the video for the entire school.
Tania says she’s seen a difference in the way students interact with Willem.
“I pick him up early every day and he has to walk down the hall. I can see the classrooms kind of stop and stare,” Tania said. “Before, they used to stop and stare and kind of be confused — he makes a lot of noise just walking from A to B. Just coming down the hall, they kind of look at him with a curious eye. Now, for sure, they’ll stop, and they’ll actually say, ‘Hi Willem!’”
Tania later put the video on her Facebook page, where it’s been shared hundreds of times. She says that now, when the family goes for a walk or a bike ride around their hometown of Buda, strangers on the street will stop and say hello.
“He himself is his little own celebrity. People really love to just see him and say hi,” Tania said.
And it’s not just Texas. Tania says she’s received messages from people who have viewed the video has far away as Saskatoon, Canada.
Tania says she didn’t expect anything less from Elli, who is always proud of her brother.
“She always wants to be an advocate for him,” Tania said. “…she’s the only child in his life that can mimic the things and communicate with him in a way that he understands — kind of being a little mini-mama to him.”