Class rallies around autistic student
June 14, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. (June 14, 2012) -- When Staff Sgt. Chad Miles, his wife, Chazia, and their four children moved from Fort McPherson, Ga., to Fort Jackson last summer, they did not know what to expect.
Although moving can be hard on any military family, the Miles family had an additional worry. Their 8-year old son, Chad, was diagnosed with autism in 2009 -- a developmental disorder that, for Chad, led to problems with verbal, cognitive and social skills.
His mother said any change is hard on children with autism.
"They like routine," she said. "So, to change states, change houses, change schools, teachers, surroundings completely threw him for a loop. He couldn't be consoled. He wouldn't socialize."
At his previous school in Atlanta, Chad had been subjected to a less-than-ideal learning environment, Miles said.
"The bullying was bad, so what the other teachers would usually do is send him to the nurse's office or send him to the teacher's room, so he'd be sitting there by himself," said Miles, who works at the Soldier Support Institute.
Chad started second grade at Pierce Terrace Elementary School, having to get used to a new school, new teachers and new classmates.
"When the beginning of the school year started, Chad had very weak social skills," said Amy Henderson, Chad's homeroom teacher. "I didn't say anything to anybody about anybody on the first day. On the second day, we went around, talked about things that were the same about each other and the things that were different. And when (the students) all got to Chad, they were all hesitant to point out that he didn't talk and that he didn't want to sit with (them) and some of the things that he didn't want to do."
Henderson, who used to work as a special education teacher, said she explained to the class why Chad acted that way.
"Then I told them that they were put in my classroom specifically to help -- because I have two autistic children in this room, to help them get as far as they can get this school year," she said. "They had a job. They had a mission this year. And their mission this year was to get those two boys as far as (they) could get them by the end of the year -- socially, academically, emotionally, just all the way around. They took that to heart and just kind of went with it."
Miles said the way the entire class rallied in support of Chad was nothing short of amazing.
"They just interacted with him and got him involved and made him more comfortable in his space and did it at his level -- not rushing him or even slowing themselves down," Miles said. "They've never made fun of him. They've never asked what's wrong with him. They've always been assisting. It's almost like he has little mommies and daddies in the classroom."
Henderson said in her 20 years of teaching, she has seldom seen an entire class show that level of support to one child. The support culminated in a book about Chad that a group of students wrote at the end of the school year.
"It's amazing. It's rare to find a class that would be this supportive of each other," Henderson said. "This has probably been the best year of teaching I've had. I've had a lot of good years, but this has probably been the best year that I've had. And it's been because of the kids, but their parents are amazing, too."
She said she's seen steady progress in Chad's development throughout the year.
"The thing with Chad that has really been important this year is that he is now able to initiate a conversation with the kids,'" Henderson said. "He wasn't doing that at the beginning of the year. If he's having a bad day, he's gained enough verbal skills that he can say to them, 'I don't feel good,' or, 'My foot hurts.'"
"It's easy to work with Chad, because he's so loving,'" Henderson explained. "He has a good heart, and he's a good kid. When somebody doesn't feel good, he's one of the first ones to go over and rub him and say, 'I'm sorry.' He wasn't doing that, he wasn't showing any kind of compassion like that at the beginning of the year. He's come a long way."
That progress has also caught the attention of Brian Perry, principal of Pierce Terrace Elementary School.
"Chad has made steady progress toward his specific goals. Since the beginning of the year, I have seen Chad become more vocal and interactive with his teachers and peers," Perry said. "This is a direct result of the class' willingness to assist Chad in many ways socially and academically. His classmates have gone above and beyond to include Chad in every way."
Perry said that, on average, seven to 10 students with autism are enrolled at the school each year.
"Our teachers are very receptive to working with these students," he said. "These students are included in all school activities, including special area classes, field trips and special programs with their peers."
Miles said Chad took part in field trips for the first time this year -- something she had not thought possible after his diagnosis three years ago.
"You see other people play with their kids, go to birthday parties and go outside to play -- normal things that kids do. And your son doesn't do it," she said. "You see kids that are going to grow up and go off to college and drive cars and get married and have children. That's what everybody wants for their child. To come to the realization that it may not happen is the hardest thing for any parent to have to go through."
Cheryl Jackson, manager of the Exceptional Family Member Program, said that for autistic children to thrive, an extraordinary level of commitment by the parents is needed.
"We find that these parents are very, very resilient," Jackson said. "A lot of times they don't sit back and get disappointed. They may have some disappointments, but, I think with the challenges they have, this is what pushes them to the next level. Because they know that they are the best advocate for their child. And if they don't advocate for their child, sometimes nobody else will."
Miles said she feels her family is no longer alone in that quest, thanks to the help of Chad's classmates and teachers.
"You have to be the voice for your child. I was the voice for Chad for a long time. And now I'm not the only voice for him," she said.
One of Chad's biggest triumphs is the progress he's made in reading, Miles said. He is now able to identify a number of sight words she calls "awesome words." Chad recently got to share this success with his father, who is currently deployed to Kuwait with Third Army/ARCENT, via video chat.
"It brought his dad completely to tears. These are things that he thought wouldn't happen. These are things a lot of people thought were not going to happen," Miles said. "It's evident in his progression that this positive energy, this positive atmosphere, this village raising a child has done nothing but wonders for him."