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From the Halls of Worrall Elementary School, News by Students with Asperger’s

September 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
News has an agenda at Worrall Elementary School in Broomall, Pa., where students with Asperger's syndrome 'go live' in their own broadcast each year. Their teachers say it's one of the best ways for students to learn to speak clearly, work together, build confidence, and gain fame all at once. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: helping students deal with Asperger’s syndrome.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on a unique program in Pennsylvania.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was straight to the top for Donato Tocci. At 11 years old, he’s already a television news anchor. And he’s about to go live.

WOMAN: You look great, Donato.

ANNOUNCER: This is Action 7 News.

DONATO TOCCI, Action 7 News: I’m Donato Tocci, reporting live.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: News has an agenda at Worrall Elementary School in Broomall, Pennsylvania. The reporters aren’t simply young and driven. They also have Asperger’s syndrome.

Children with this form of autism often have trouble with social cues, like facial expressions and gestures and working well with others.

MICHAEL RIZZO: I said Mona Lisa.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that’s the very reason Asperger’s specialist Randi Rentz and speech pathologist Kristen Dercole developed the newscast filled with kid-friendly skits and commercials.

They wanted their students to see the world from another angle.

RANDI RENTZ, Asperger’s specialist: A lot of my kids are very black and white, so to speak, where they don’t understand the middle area, the gray area. And they may know happy, they may know sad, but they don’t know the difference in between.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And television journalists, even miniature ones, need to watch themselves from time to time and think critically about how they present themselves, especially how they sound.

KRISTEN DERCOLE, speech and language pathologist: I think that reporters in general are really good role models for students as far as good speaking skills. We always talk about how, to be on a newscast, you have to over-enunciate.

TUSHAR NARAYAN, Action 7 News: His owner, Mike Schelin, even takes him on cross-country races.

KRISTEN DERCOLE: You have to slow down your rate of speech.

AARON THOMAS:  … largest mass transit system in the world.

KRISTEN DERCOLE: You have to really work on your pitch.

HANNAH COATES: … ever made.

KRISTEN DERCOLE: You want to emphasize key words.

DONATO TOCCI: In sports news, Jeter hits 3,000.

KRISTEN DERCOLE: And so there’s a lot of different parts of speech that you can work on while you work on the newscast.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s Augie Pantellas, reporting the very latest in sports. When his mother, Michelle, learned he had Asperger’s and would need treatment, this isn’t exactly what she envisioned.

MICHELLE PANTELLAS, mother: So, I was a little angry when I first met everyone here and a little frustrated. And, you know, I was scared for my son.

But I think that being in the program for six years has changed the course of his life. I mean, the skills that he’s learned, coping skills, strategies, just how to react to people and how to read people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s a good perk, but the journalists themselves can think of a better one. When the half-hour broadcast is complete each year, the whole school gathers to watch.

MICHAEL RIZZO: Well, I guess my favorite part about Action 7 is, I guess, getting to do what all of the other skits and letting your friends envy you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even Donato, the anchor, feels it.

DONATO TOCCI: I have never been this famous before.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For children with Asperger’s, kids who often stand out from the rest of the crowd, that feeling can be, well, monumental.

RANDI RENTZ: One year, I was over at the middle school. And there was a huge, huge difference with the kids who had been through the program socially, not just with their confidence, but with their social skills overall as a whole.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At the moment, Action 7 is the only program of its kind in the nation, at least as far as Randi Rentz knows. But she also believes shining this kind of spotlight on kids with Asperger’s could be a good approach for any school.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Betty Ann Bowser — oh, wait a minute. Let’s let one of them do it.

AARON THOMAS, Action 7 News: Reporting live from the red streets of Spain, I’m Aaron Thomas for Action 7 News.