For most of the students who enroll at Heartspring’s residential school, average is not typically a word used to describe them. The students at Heartspring are exceptional. Exceptional because of the progress that staff and parents have the joy of seeing each of the students make certainly exceeds average. Andrew is one such student who has made tremendous gains since coming to Heartspring in 2000 when he was 11 years old. Diagnosed with autism, Andrew did not communicate verbally and often his attempt to communicate resulted in self-injurious behavior. Unable to convey his wants and needs and he was also at times aggressive toward his family and school district staff, having up to 500 aggressive outbursts in just one month. Because of the severity of his behaviors and to ensure his safety, Andrew wore a protective helmet at all times.
Upon enrolling at Heartspring, Andrew required the assistance of several staff members and he tried to avoid being around others. Pam Calabria, Heartspring behavior specialist, remembers Andrew’s first dance at Heartspring. “He was taken to a dance and asked to stay for five minutes,” she said. “A digital timer was set and a story was read to him to show Andrew what the expectations were. During the dance he had approximately four staff helping him and redirecting him to stay in the gym. He attempted to aggress several times. Staff continued to coach him and when the digital timer sounded, everyone praised him and escorted him out of the gym.” Today, Andrew is not only able to attend group activities at Heartspring, but he is able to attend functions in the community as well. One recent successful outing was to see “High School Musical 2”, where over 400 people were in attendance. Andrew stayed and enjoyed the entire performance. “What great progress,” Pam said.
Andrew’s ability to attend group activities and outings in the community is possible because of the decrease in self-injurious and aggressive behaviors. In fact, these behaviors have decreased so much that he no longer requires the assistance of several staff and he no longer uses his helmet on a daily basis. Much of this success is due to learning how to appropriately communicate.
Because Andrew is non-verbal, he uses a PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) book to communicate with others. He is now able to adapt to change, as long as he can be told what these changes are, with the use of his PECS book. “Andrew is one of my best student’s when communicating with his PECS book,” said Terry Pryce, Andrew’s special education teacher at Heartspring. “He can tell us how he feels, what he wants and where he wants to go.” Andrew frequently chooses to go on walks and car rides and he loves Reese’s Peanut Buttercups as a snack or break choice. He also enjoys community outings and roller-skating. Andrew uses his PECS book everyday to communicate these choices to his staff.
Andrew has made such exceptional progress that Heartspring is now preparing him for a new chapter in life. Andrew will soon be returning to his own school district. To assist in a successful transition, he has started attending school there two days a week. This is a great achievement for Andrew.
Andrew’s story is exceptional because Andrew is exceptional. His teachers, classroom and home paraeducators, therapists and medical staff are also exceptional and very proud of Andrew. Andrew’s mother Martha said, “Our family thinks of Heartspring as a blessing for our son.” Heartspring feels honored to be considered a blessing for a child. A child who needed exceptional supports in order to succeed, but succeed he did.