Abigail Chitwood, 20, currently holds the title of Miss Ada from competing in the Miss Oklahoma Scholarship Pageant. Previously a contestant for Miss Oklahoma’s Outstanding Teen, she built her entire platform around a close-to-home topic: autism. One of her younger brothers, Zachary, has Asperger Syndrome, and Chitwood wanted to teach others about this part of his life.
“Being young, I didn’t understand why Zach didn’t interact with me the same way [my other brother] Chase did,” Chitwood said. “The older I became, the more I began to understand autism and found new, different ways of interacting with him.”
Public speaking is not something that came easily to Chitwood. Until recently, her fear of talking to people was so severe that she was unable to order for herself at restaurants. Wanting to be like her mother and compete in the Miss Oklahoma Outstanding Teen Pageant, she knew she had to overcome this fear – and it’s a good thing she did.
“I honestly was not expecting it,” Chitwood said. “… They called my name, and I stood there for a while until it hit me that my name was called as the winner.”
“That was the first time I think I realized that I can actually make a difference.”
Wanting to support her brother, Chitwood and her mother began looking into different autism organizations. Her platform, “Think Up” – Understanding the Pieces of Autism, strives to promote acceptance and awareness for people with autism.
“I first found out about OAR in late 2014 after winning my second teen title,” Chitwood said. “I’ve been with them ever since.”
After finding OAR and their Kit for Kids program, Chitwood started going into elementary schools and giving presentations. She first gets the students’ attention with her crown, then holds their focus with the engaging lessons.
“I start by telling them who I am and why I’m wearing a crown,” Chitwood said. “Then, I read them through the Kit for Kids booklet. I typically have the kids answer questions about the booklet to make sure they were paying attention.”
Chitwood uses the Kit for Kids program because she believes that it turns a topic that is difficult even for adults to understand into a clear concept for children to grasp.
“In my Miss Oklahoma platform statement, I quote Ben Platt…
‘The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.’“
“When I discovered Kit for Kids, I fell in love,” Chitwood said. “It explains autism in a way that fifth graders and second graders can comprehend. I put a booklet in the hands of each child in the classroom and they follow along. In my opinion, it’s one of OAR’s best resources.”
When Chitwood gave the lesson to her brother’s class, she ignited a change that she did not expect.
“I went into the classroom and gave the lessons like normal,” Chitwood said. “I never mentioned that [Zach] was my brother, nor did I mention there being a child with autism in their classroom. … The teacher informed my mom that [a boy who had been unkind to Zach] paid enough attention to my lesson that he went home and told his mom about it and told her that he now understood why Zach is a little different.”
Taking her advocacy work a step further, Chitwood gave her lesson to an entire elementary school. The presentation included all of the students and teachers, as well as parents who were invited to attend. When a hint of her old dread of public speaking flared up, Chitwood promptly gave herself a pep-talk and reminded herself of the importance of the information she was about to share.
“I am passionate about being an advocate for these individuals.”
“I knew I had to do it,” Chitwood said. “I had a message that I wanted the kids to hear, and who knows, maybe a parent who was there needed to hear about autism awareness, too.”
Giving this presentation in front of the entire school not only helped the young students with autism get recognized, but also made Chitwood realize something about her own capabilities.
“I just walked up on stage and started talking,” Chitwood said. “… I realized that if I can do that, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
With 1 in 59 children now being affected by autism spectrum disorder, Chitwood wanted to use her title to improve and distribute educational resources.
“… I realized that the odds of a teacher having an autistic child in their classroom is only increasing,” Chitwood said. “I wanted to do something that would also help student teachers before they go into the teaching field.”
“You have a voice,
you have something to say,
and you deserve to be heard.“
With the help of her mother and OAR, Chitwood developed the STAR Toolbox, which stands for Student Teacher Autism Resource Toolbox. The box includes Kit for Kids, helpful tips guide, Educator’s Guide to ASD, and Educator Fact Sheet, as well as a links page that directs users to OAR’s online resources.
“By going into schools, I’ve seen children become more open to someone who might be different than they are, regardless of whether or not they have autism,” Chitwood said.
One of Chitwood’s main goals is to encourage all children to embrace what makes them unique and individual.
“Serving as an ambassador for OAR has helped me spread awareness by using the wonderful tools that they have developed,” Chitwood said.
Chitwood started her advocacy as a means to support her brother and others like him. While trying to be a voice for children with autism, Chitwood found her own along the way.
“The most important lesson I have learned is that I have a voice, I have something to say, and I deserve to be heard,” Chitwood said.
Join Chitwood to take initiative and affect change in your community.
Learn how you can become an advocate for autism awareness.