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Way to Go: Jessica Ouderkirk, East Setauket

Jessica Ouderkirk, 17, a student at Ward Melville

Jessica Ouderkirk, 17, a student at Ward Melville High School, gives presentations about autism to local teenagers to help them better understand the developmental disorder and the challenges it poses. | Here's the story

An East Setauket student who has autism is using the disorder as a teaching opportunity.

Jessica Ouderkirk, who attends Ward Melville High School, is giving presentations about autism to local teenagers to help them better understand the developmental disorder and the challenges it poses.

"I want to share my life's puzzle with my peers and anyone who will give me the opportunity to speak," said Ouderkirk, 17. "I want them to learn about autism from someone who has it."

So far, she has delivered presentations to a psychology class at Patchogue-Medford High School and at Eastern Suffolk BOCES' Bellport Academic Center Program, which she also attends.

"Having autism used to be a negative stigma for me, but I don't think it is anymore," she said. "My reality used to be total isolation, but with the help of ESBOCES teachers, I think it can be advantageous."

In the 30-minute presentations, she shares how each person with autism has her or his own "unique puzzle" and explains how she views things differently from other people.

Ouderkirk, a Girl Scout, is also working on an autism-themed art project made up of large puzzle pieces to help her earn a Gold Award, the top achievement for scouts.

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