Inclusion wins: Lake Pontchartrain Elementary welcomes 1st cheerleader with autism

Published 4:46 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

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LAPLACE — When Ava’lyn Harris was diagnosed with autism at 4 years old, her family quickly adopted the mantra that she has autism, but autism doesn’t have her. 

Determined to try anything at least once, she embraces every new challenge with an optimistic outlook. Ava’lyn is now breaking barriers as the first child on the autism spectrum to become a full-fledged member of Lake Pontchartrain Elementary’s cheerleading squad. 

Above all, she wants the world to know “Girls with autism can do it, too.”

Ava’lyn Harris is the first child on the autism spectrum to become a full participant in Lake Pontchartrain Elementary’s cheerleading squad.

Coach Anika Shaw said Ava’lyn is adapting well at practice. The team is made of mostly first-year cheerleaders with only five of 18 girls returning from last year’s squad, so they are all learning together.

Ava’Lyn was stationed in the front of the middle row as she learned cheers for her first game on September 19.

“I knew her mom was nervous. I wasn’t as nervous. She enjoys it, and the girls enjoy her being on the team,” Coach Shaw said. “She picks up her cheers really well. Her movements might be slower, but she knows it, and she remembers the movements. It’s just at her own pace.”

Ava’lyn’s mother, Chaneva Harris, will never forget her daughter coming home and proudly announcing that she was among the cheerleaders whose name was called over the intercom to the entire school.

“I was prepared for a ‘no’ or a pushback. When you are a mom of a special needs child, you are automatically in defense mode because the world is not always accepting,” Harris said. “Inclusion is important with all kids. They spend more time at school than they do at home, so having her desire to try new things supported by the school and staff means a lot to me. It’s something I don’t have the words to describe.”

Harris had just welcomed her second child at the time Ava’lyn received her diagnosis. It took some time to adjust, but she knew from the start she would never stop her daughter from pursuing anything she’s interested in. Every year has brought a new adventure as Ava’lyn looks to find her niche. 

Before cheerleading, it was pageants. Ava’lyn burst into her parents’ room at 2 a.m. with a picture of Miss America contestants. 

“None of them are like me,” she told them. They thought she was referring to skin color until she added, “None of them have autism. Girls with autism can do beauty pageants, too.”

After entering into a pageant, Harris was discouraged when Ava’lyn didn’t place.

Ava’lyn seemed unfazed and told her mother to buy her a crown off of Amazon instead. When Harris explained that a plastic crown didn’t hold the same significance as a pageant title, Ava’lyn told her the goal wasn’t to win.

“I told you I can do it, too, and I did it,” she said.

When Ava’lyn expressed an interest in joining Lake Pontchartrain’s cheer squad, Harris felt familiar doubts cross her mind. How would Ava’lyn’s sensitivities to bright lights and loud noises impact her ability to cheer alongside a team, especially when practices are held indoors and the sounds of chants echo across the room? Harris also feared her daughter wouldn’t have the rhythm to perform choreographed stunts. 

Ava’lyn reminded her mom that she isn’t sad about anything she can’t do, as long as she can try. 

“Even if it looks impossible, she’s really optimistic,” Harris said. “The girls were really accepting. They clapped for her and welcomed her. I thought she was just going to dress up with the team, but she is going to be a full-fledged cheerleader on the field.”

Ava’lyn was proud to share that she has committed more than eight cheers to memory, and she looks forward to standing at the sidelines of the Pelicans’ football and basketball games this season.

“Trying new things is always fun,” she said. “I want people to see me do it.”