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Student Spotlight: Unlocking Chamia-Marie’s Potential

As Chamia-Marie begins her second year at Connections, she’s a fun-spirited Kindergartner who interacts with other students, feeds herself, and expresses her wants and needs with a variety of nonverbal cues. But it wasn’t always that way.

At a young age, Chamia-Marie was diagnosed with autism. She demonstrated some of the hallmark characteristics of autism including a lack of interest in those around her, a rigid need for routine and structure, frequent temper tantrums, a lack of communication, difficulty following instruction and fine motor challenges.

When she turned three, the Florida public school system assigned her to a nearby preschool class for children with a variety of special needs. “Chamia-Marie did not thrive there. She went there for a year but not much was accomplished and she didn’t get the attention she needed,” says her mom, Milande Charles.

Milande searched for a school that specialized in autism, knowing that her daughter needed to be taught the way that children with autism learn. She found Connections and enrolled Chamia-Marie in Pre-K.

“I love this school,” says Milande. “She has done so well there.”

Tremendous Progress in a Short Time

Her happy mom describes the incredible progress Chamia-Marie has made in her short time at Connections. “She feeds herself now and is potty trained. She knows what she wants and will point to tell us what she needs. Temper tantrums have been reduced from about 10 a day to one or zero a day,” Milande says. “She interacts with the other kids and shares toys. She holds her pencils the right way, picks out her own shoes each morning and even puts her shoes on correctly.”

Milande appreciates how the Connections teachers and staff have helped her daughter make significant progress at school and also how they’ve offered strategies to help the family at home. For example, Milande says, Connections’ behavioral therapist Joe Donegan offered an effective strategy for teaching Chamia-Marie to follow her parents’ instructions and decrease tantrums. “He taught us that we need to let her know what we’re doing before she’s expected to do it. Otherwise, it feels to her like we’re interrupting what she was doing,” Milande explains. “When it’s time to shower, I’ll tell her that in 10 minutes, she needs to take a shower. I’ll remind her again 5 minutes before. This works well, and she’s so much better when I let her know what’s expected ahead of time.”

Progress in the Pool

Chamia-Marie also has made good progress through Connections’ adaptive swim lessons. “At first, she didn’t want to get in the water with the instructor,” recalls Milande. “But now I tell her the night before that she’s going to swim the next day and lay out her swimsuit. Now she loves the pool and is getting better with swimming and kicking her legs.”

Sustaining Skills at Summer Camp

Chamia-Marie attended the Connections 2023 summer camp, which her mom says was very important for her. “She needs routine and structure in order to retain her ability to listen to us, sit at a table with other kids and follow instructions,” says Milande. “If she hadn’t gone to summer camp, she would’ve withdrawn into her own space over the summer and then had to learn how to interact and share with kids all over again when school began.”

The regression that Milande describes is common with students with autism over school breaks. While most children fall back a little academically over school breaks, students with autism often experience more serious regression. This regression often impacts their ability to communicate, socialize, self-regulate and follow instructions, and that’s on top of academic regression that may occur.

“Summer camp kept the routine going and kept her interacting with peers. She loved it and loved the field trips they took. We found out that she likes to bowl after one of their field trips,” Milande adds. “It was awesome!”

“I love this school,” says Milande. “She has done so well there.”

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