Like every other Appoquinimink School Disctrict high school senior, Middletown High School student Kayla Green has to complete a senior project to graduate. Finding inspiration in her nine-year-old cousin, Green is combining her love of family with her life-long love of dance in a performance for her whole community.

A couple of months ago, Middletown High School student Kayla Green began learning what it means to be different or misunderstood. Her mom's sister came to live with Green's family and she didn't come alone. Sydney, her nine-year-old cousin, moved in as well.

With eight years between them, communication and experience gaps were, of course, expected. But, Sydney brings more than just an average elementary student's personality with her.

Sydney has autism.

"It's made a big impact on our lives," Green explained while taking a break on Sunday during her busy schedule of weekend dance rehearsals. "I didn't really know what autism was before they came to live here. I don't want to say it's a lifestyle change but we had to learn new ways to communicate so Sydney could be comfortable."

Curious to learn more, the high school senior turned to her computer where she quickly found Autism Delaware, an organization founded in 1998. The website explains that Autism occurs in one in 88 births and that the condition affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. She also learned that it doesn't always mean that there's an intellectual disability.

"Sydney is really smart," Green said. "She just struggles to express herself."

As Green's aunt and cousin settled in, the high school senior began preparing for her final year at MHS. And, as an Appoquinimink School District student, Green knew that the required "Senior Project" was looming. It's mandatory for every student who wants to graduate and involves research, papers, a product and a presentation.

With so much riding on the outcome of the project, students are encouraged to focus on a topic that means something to them. Green knew immediately that her topic would be autism.

"Living with Sydney has opened my eyes to the fact that some people struggle with simple things that most of us take for granted," Green said. "But, what makes autism even harder is that you can't tell just by looking at someone. So, what happens is that people just think that an autistic person is weird. And, that's not fair."

Green has embraced the research of the project, since it gives her the opportunity to become somewhat of an armchair expert on the condition. But, there was still the matter of the project's product.

"Your product can be service-oriented but, to be honest, I didn't know how I'd fit the service requirements in to my schedule," she said. "But, then it occurred to me that dance is another form of communication and I've been doing it my whole life. I also thought it would be a unique way to highlight the fact that autism's main characteristics all revolve around communication."

So, she turned to her instructors and fellow dancers at Encore Dance Academy in Bear. The studio director agreed to open up for extra rehearsal time and more than 30 friends agreed to help her out. Sydney will even get to be a part of the opening number.

"She's really excited," Green said. "She's such a character and loves to perform."

Sydney won't be alone either. Through her dance connections, three more autistic girls will also get to make their stage debut to "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."

"I'm thrilled to have them be a part of it," Green said. "People with autism are misunderstood a lot. But, I think on stage, their true hearts are going to shine through."

Tickets for the performance will be $8 to $10 and all proceeds will benefit Autism Delaware.

"I want people to come, not because it supports me but because it supports Sydney and people like Sydney," Green said. "I want people to know that girls and boys like her are just as capable as anybody. They just have a different way of communicating."


WHAT "Ray of Sunshine" dance recitalWHERE Middletown High School, 120 Silver Lake RoadWHEN 6 p.m., SaturdayCOST $8 for advance tickets, $10 at the doorINFO