A glimpse into exceptionality

Written by Julie Hying

p>Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that typically makes itself known before a child reaches the age of three. This developmental disability can significantly affect verbal as well as non-verbal communication, along with a child’s social skills and interaction. ASD (autism spectrum disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors and speech, and affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today.

What does this mean for a child with autism? For that child’s education? Can understanding the exceptionality help a person’s family members to better encourage and support a child with ASD?

In the Andover School District, Michelle Adler, lead teacher for Social Emotional Learning, supports, guides and instructs teachers so they have the knowledge and tools to best nurture their unique learners. She also works directly with students, helping them find success socially, emotionally and academically.

This role is a natural fit for Michelle. As a former Wichita State University assistant professor in the elementary education program, she brings years of teaching experience in the areas of classroom management, self-care, and test anxiety, plus an acute awareness of neurodiverse learners: those with ADHD, dyslexia and autism.

Her experience has taught her that children like this may see the world very differently than other children and to them school is not intuitive, and social learning and skill development happens uniquely and often at a later time than others their age. Brain research suggests that a customized path to learning can help children with ASD learn resilience, become capable of collaboration and better share their gifts and personalities.

Michelle’s background in special education and elementary education laid a foundation for her to instruct and assist others — but also increased her awareness of early indicators. As her fourth son, Luc, grew and developed, she readily noticed developmental delays and missed milestones that parents look for as a child grows. Luc was difficult to soothe and did not roll over or sit up as early as her other sons. He began to walk when he was 20 months old and used a lot of non-verbal cues and sign language until around his fourth birthday when he began to talk.

At the age of one, Luc and his family sought assistance at Heartspring in Wichita. Michelle’s experience and background taught her that “receiving services from an early age is essential for kids who are delayed.” Since the needs of his exceptionality went beyond what he would need to build a bridge from his current capabilities to school-ready skills, Michelle continued to utilize the support of Heartspring and calls their guidance a game changer for her son.

Throughout these formative, pre-kindergarten years, he worked with physical and occupational therapists along with a speech pathologist to develop his delayed skills. They continued to support Luc with a transition of services as he entered kindergarten. She shares that “they provided an excellent foundation going into his years of elementary school.” With this assistance, along with pull-out services, Luc was able to learn in a mainstream classroom throughout much of his time at elementary school.

The challenges of autism and ADHD for a young student can be difficult to navigate. Despite these obstacles, Luc liked school and interacting with others. Middle school brought alternate learning situations that allowed Luc to learn in small group settings or have one-to-one interactions with his teachers. With support, Luc found joy and experienced successes.

Currently, the same is true for his high school classes. Although he has significant learning challenges, Andover schools have provided him with educational support and offered learning and extracurricular opportunities. He has acquired many specific life skills while working with others at the school. As a high school junior, Luc continues to enjoy running track and cross country with the AHS teams.

Some of these skills have developed in the Andover Bakery where kids like Luc learn life skills. Here support and guidance allows students to flourish and grow in a number of ways while developing real life skills. Hannah Dreiling heads this innovative program where kids begin with foundational skills such as dishwashing, cook area preparation, and sweeping. Once those are established, focus can shift to other skills such as basic bookkeeping and data entry, following a recipe and cookie baking. Later students can also share in the delivery of baked goods. When asked about his favorite aspect of working at the bakery, Luc’s face lit up. “The cookies! I love making the cookies and eating cookies. They’re so good.”

In addition to being part of the AHS family, Luc is known in his own family as a great helper, one with a servant’s heart. He hopes to choose a job after high school that will allow him to spend a lot of time with people, be helpful in his job while finding enjoyment and fulfillment.

Michelle and Luc’s other family members value his unique perspective and his outgoing personality. As a brother and a friend, his relationships are meaningful and joyful. While family and friends provide a capable and encouraging support system for Luc, they also love just hanging out and having fun together.

Upon reflection of her professional training and leadership roles, as well as her profoundly important role as a mother of five, Michelle had this to offer.

“Every step has served as a stone that led me to what I’m doing now with my family, my work and education. It’s a good picture and sometimes challenging. But this is where we're supposed to be, every part, a piece of our family’s puzzle.”

 
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