Alexis Lannon 5, (left) and Kayla Worachek 5, read together during their first day of kindergarten in Mrs. Strauss' class at Kyrene de la Estrella Elementary School Aug 8, 2011. Darryl Webb/AFN

For the past week, students at Kyrene de la Estrella Elementary School in Ahwatukee Foothills have been learning about autism and bringing in spare pennies to raise funds for the upcoming Autism Speaks walk.

The project was brought to Estrella this year by parent Jennifer Berniger, in an effort to spread awareness of the disease’s social implications.

With donated books and materials from The Emily Center at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, both teachers and students are learning about what it means to be on the autism spectrum, how to make friends, and to understand a student’s perspective with autism.

“I thought this would be a great way to be educated throughout the whole school,” said Berniger, whose two sons are both on the spectrum and attend Estrella.

Every morning, the student team of news announcers remind the school that a penny fundraiser for autism is taking place, while teachers set aside time to read from the donated books.

Berniger, who lives in Ahwatukee, has been working on fundraising projects for “a long time,” and wanted the project to focus less on the word “bullying” and more about making friends.

“My older son is having a hard time with friends,” Berniger said. “I thought taking a different approach to this issue would be a good alternative.”

The Autism Speaks walk will be on Oct. 28 at the Tempe Beach Park.

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