2009-11-05 / Community

Teen speaks out for autism

By Joann Groff joann@theacorn.com

AMBASSADOR—Zak Kukoff,  a  freshman  at Westlake  High School, developed a program that educates non-autistic children about the special challenges of the disorder and encourages them to integrate with their autistic peers. Autism Speaks, a national organization, has adopted Kukoff’s ambassador program. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers AMBASSADOR—Zak Kukoff, a freshman at Westlake High School, developed a program that educates non-autistic children about the special challenges of the disorder and encourages them to integrate with their autistic peers. Autism Speaks, a national organization, has adopted Kukoff’s ambassador program. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers When Zak Kukoff was 5 years old, his autistic cousin came to live with his family for a couple of years. Zak remembers feeling sad and angry about the way his cousin was treated outside his home.

“She was kind of ostracized in the community, and I remember thinking, years later, maybe I could do something about that,” he said.

Now a freshman at Westlake High School, Zak is doing something about it. Two years ago, he began an organization called Autism Ambassadors, which aims to teach typical children how to help autistic children in their daily school experiences.

Autism is a disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. This year, one out of every 150 children will be diagnosed with an autism-related disorder, according to Zak.

“I decided to create a series of lesson plans to help teach kids how to teach skills to children with autism,” he said. “I feel like kids have a basic understanding of autism, but ignorance is hindering whatever good gestures they want to make. People want to help.”

Zak’s curriculum is broken down into modules that help typical children and autistic children form relationships. Through their interaction, the typical children learn about autism and how to address the stigmas and the judgments of others, and the autistic children learn social and academic skills from the ambassadors.

The program is now the official peer-leadership program for Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.

Autism Ambassadors has been implemented in 12 schools across the nation in the past year, including high schools in New Jersey and Connecticut. Zak is working on expanding in the Conejo Valley Unified School District; he’s currently in talks with the administration at Lang Ranch Elementary School.

“It’s very, very easily adaptable to any grade,” Zak said. “We have the program in schools from second to 12th grade.”

Autism Speaks has set a goal for Autism Ambassadors to be in place in 100 schools by 2010. But Zak has his own goal.

“When I first started out, I just hoped I could help people like my cousin,” he said. “But . . . my overreaching goal now is to get it into every school system in America.”

Shawna Weinheimer, director of Autism Speaks Student Initiatives, said Autism Ambassadors has helped raise autism awareness among young people.

“The mission of our student initiatives is to create the opportunity for students to engage and actively participate in positively affecting the lives of people with autism through education, awareness, friendship and fundraising,” Weinheimer said. “Programs like Zak’s are helping us reach out and spread those friendship and education functions to more students across the country.”

Ambassadors are interviewed and screened and are then trained extensively. Teachers and aides monitor the sessions, and as relationships grow, they serve more as supervisors, Zak said.

“Everyone takes turns role playing as a typical student, the ambassador and a person with autism,” he said. “That way they get a better feeling of what its like to be spoken to as a person with autism.”

Typically, Zak and his executive board of three other students work directly with school systems. They help interested teachers or students who e-mail them to set up clubs at their schools, community centers and places of worship.

For several summers Zak has attended Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, where he’s studied international politics, physics, engineering and other subjects. He’s received two awards from the school, one for placing second in the state of California on the verbal section of the SAT exam and the other for high overall achievement on the SAT. 

Zak studied genetics at Cal Lutheran University in 2007 and trained with a behaviorist to help develop the curriculum for Autism Ambassadors.

For more information, visit autismambassadors.org.

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