CHESTERTON | Natalie Petro, a junior at Chesterton High School, has spent time in gym class working with children with special needs, and has an aunt diagnosed with autism, so she has made it her mission to help bring the community together through education and understanding.
Petro hopes to establish a local chapter of Making Advancements for the Autistic Population, a group that was established in Crown Point in 1984, and she has set her sights on growing the group into other communities.
MAAP provides information, networking, referrals and printed materials for families, challenged individuals and professionals concerned with the autism spectrum.
They were founded on the basic principal that all individuals with autism spectrum challenges have the ability to learn, grow and enjoy a good quality of life.
“It’s a good starting place for people to go, to come to for help when a friend or family member has autism. It’s important for everyone to have an equal opportunity in life,” said Petro.
In early May, Petro organized a 5K run/walk to raise funds to start a chapter at her school. She hopes to extend the group’s reach.
“I want to get my friends in the region to start a chapter in their school so we can keep it going,” she says.
She already has support from within her school, Petro said.
“My friends think it’s really cool and offer to help. People I haven’t talked to in years will come up to me and tell me they have a relative or friend with autism,” said Petro.
Petro said the staff and faculty at Chesterton High School also have been supportive of her starting a MAAP chapter, and she believes the group can help everyone understand those with autism.
“We should treat people with autism just like any normal person," she said. "My aunt doesn’t think there’s anything different about her. But we do have to look for the various ways they show their feelings because sometimes they can be very literal.”
Being with her aunt and working with children with special needs has given Petro not only the idea to start MAAP at her school, but also something further down the road.
“I love working with people with special needs and I think it would be fantastic to pursue as a career,” she said.