PROVIDENCE VILLAGE — Emily Betenbaugh-Harris is like other 11-year-old children.
She enjoys going to the park, playing, her stuffed animal collection, cartoons, coloring and taking her dogs for walks. She also has autism.
“My brain works different but I can believe, dream and inspire,” the fifth-grader wrote in a five-paragraph essay on her life with autism recently as an entry for the PTA Reflections program.
For the 2013-14 school year, students across the country were encouraged to submit dance choreography, film production, literature, music composition, photography and visual arts on the theme “Believe, Dream, Inspire” to the PTA Reflections program.
Emily’s essay, titled “Emily’s Autism,” is something she said she hoped would make others aware of autism. The essay went on to win top awards at her school, Providence Elementary School, from the school district and received the state PTA’s Overall Award of Excellence in literature category.
Her work advanced to the National PTA Reflections contest but fell short of receiving national honors.
“It was inspiring [to] me ... to learn about autism and that’s why I needed to do something that was important to me,” Emily said of her essay.
Emily’s essay touches on her belief in herself and her belief that she’s nice, fun and smart. The essay also shares her dreams for the future of attending college and researching animals.
Her words don’t stop there, but touch on her ambition and ability to inspire others.
“I can inspire everyone to make right choices about respecting others,” Emily wrote in her essay. “I can inspire everyone to have nice feelings about me and about autism. I can inspire everyone to learn about autism and teach others about autism.”
Emily was diagnosed at age 6 with a mild case of autism, said her mother, Jennifer Harris. When the life skills aide at Providence Elementary approached her about Emily writing an essay for the Reflections contest, Harris said she didn’t see it to be “that big of a deal.”
Harris said her daughter’s essay “spoke from the heart” and “[Emily] doesn’t even reflect on it that much; she’s like, ‘this is it, this is how I feel.’”
The words were something Harris said left her speechless.
“I was speechless and I teared up,” she said as tears settled in her eyes. “I was overridden with so much joy. I was frozen by joy and happiness and it was just beyond beautiful. I was so proud of her. She’s such a super-smart spectacular individual and to see it on paper, it was just like that just validated how beyond incredible she really is.”
The essay was something Emily composed in about 20 minutes.
With assistance from Pam Lawrence, a life skills aide at Providence Elementary, Emily came up with an outline for her essay, diagrammed her sentences, dictated to Lawrence what she wanted to say and then she typed the piece.
Lawrence, who has worked with Emily since she was a first-grader, said she suggested Emily write about her life with autism for the contest.
“Emily inspires me every day in the things that she’s able to achieve and accomplish, and I thought ‘wow, she’s inspiring.’ I didn’t feel like she needed to look around for some other source of inspiration.”
It came as no surprise to Lawrence that Emily’s essay went onto to receive state accolades.
“It’s amazing,” Lawrence said. “When it was written and knowing the way that I felt about the words that came out of her head, it did not surprise me that it started moving forward, and when it got to the state level ... it was very exciting and rewarding to know that her essay was selected as a state winner.
“I can easily see how people reading her essay would be impressed by it and how her words can build a bridge between special-needs students and general-ed students. It’s a little piece of her heart and her mind about how she wants others to perceive her, and it’s insight into how she perceives herself. I’m not, although I’m very excited that she won and it could have been anybody, ... surprised that her essay inspired the panel that selected the winner.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 68 children live with autism spectrum disorder.
Emily’s father, Justin Harris, said he’s “blown away” by the accolades his daughter’s essay has received. He said it amazes him that despite her struggles she has done something to bring to light what she and other children like her experience.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” he said. “Just her concern of wanting to educate other people, it’s like she’s putting other people before herself.”
BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.