Updated: Apr 18
Kaitlyn Morales developed on schedule until 16 months of age when she regressed significantly and was diagnosed with autism. She also began getting sick frequently and required years of specialized treatments.
When Kaitlyn was old enough, her mom searched Palm Beach County for a school that knew how to keep Kaitlyn safe and could see her incredible potential rather than expecting limits for young Kaitlyn’s development. Not able to find a school up to this task with space available, Kaitlyn’s mom, Charleen, left the business she had been running in order to homeschool Kaitlyn.
In time, a spot opened at the Renaissance Learning Center (RLC), and Kaitlyn thrived in this school. But when the school reorganized and relocated, the new location did not work for Kaitlyn’s family.
Some of the RLC staff decided to open a new school -- what would become Connections -- in Central Palm Beach County. “I had been the volunteer coordinator at RLC so I knew a lot of the staff and families, including Jason Portman. When he called and told me they were opening a new school in our area, I knew it would be a good fit for Kaitlyn,” says Charleen.
Kaitlyn was among the first students when Connections opened its doors, and Charleen is one of the founding staff members. At Connections, Kaitlyn has achieved one milestone after another, including milestones that other schools said were beyond reach.
Unlocking communication with technology
Kaitlyn was nonverbal when she started attending Connections. The inability to communicate can fuel tantrums and other negative behaviors and often leads to a child being isolated by peers. “It’s really frustrating for children who can’t express their wants and needs,” explains Charleen.
At Connections, the teachers could see that Kaitlyn is a visual learner, so they introduced her to the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) where she could point to pictures to express herself.
Connections equipped Kaitlyn with an iPad running a PECS program. Kaitlyn had been using a PECS at RLC and would type a word she saw, but at Connections, teachers helped her expand those words into sentences and turn them into communication rather than just scripting. For example, Kaitlyn could touch the picture of a cup of juice, and the iPad would say, “I want juice.”
As Kaitlyn’s abilities grew, she progressed to more complex assisted communication programs on the iPad. “Kaitlyn is so strong on the iPad now that when a therapist is working with her and reading a book, Kaitlyn will type out the whole book,” adds Charleen.
Kaitlyn uses her iPad for communication while practicing restaurant skills with speech therapist Maryann Reilly.
Connections teachers didn’t stop there, though. They observed that in class settings, Kaitlyn was eager to participate but often the speech from her iPad couldn’t be heard while other students were talking. They connected a Bluetooth speaker to her iPad to make it more audible. “Kaitlyn was answering questions, but no one could hear her. Now they can. This is huge in the communications piece. The students who are verbal now socialize with Kaitlyn because they can see that she gets it. That helped with a lot of the behaviors she was having,” explains Charleen. “And it’s very important for her future. Now I’m confident that she can communicate her wants and needs to people outside of school, which is so important.”
Handling change through social stories
Like many children with autism, Kaitlyn struggles with unfamiliar or changing circumstances -- for example, a dentist appointment, a trip or a canceled event. This often leads to tantrums or other difficult behaviors.
Connections teachers prepare Kaitlyn and other students to handle change with social stories, which are simple stories about the concerning circumstance that show how someone like the student handles it positively. For visual learners especially, social stories can be a powerful tool to help students understand an event, reduce their fear of the unknown and show how to handle it.
“Connections staff is great about using social stories,” says Charleen. “When they see that a child is struggling with a change, they’ll create a social story on an app or on paper and customize it for the child’s specific circumstances. They’ll make a copy for school and one for home, so the family can continue working on it because these often need to be read repeatedly. It’s huge to have this consistency between home and school.”
Charleen shared a recent example of how social stories have helped her daughter. “Kaitlyn loves swim class and gets really upset if she can’t go. If swim class gets canceled because of bad weather, her teachers will create a social story on the app to tell the story of why we can’t go today but that we’ll try again next week,” Charleen adds. “A story like this helps her handle the disappointment and change much better.”
Expanding a picky palette for better nutrition
Children with autism are often limited in what they’re willing to eat, leaving parents struggling to provide well-rounded nutrition. And that has been the case with Kaitlyn.
“When Kaitlyn was younger, she only ate five things,” recalls Charleen. “Now, she’ll eat every fruit and vegetable thanks to Connections’ Health & Wellness Program.”
Charleen says that Connections teachers use incremental steps to acclimate students to new foods. “They don’t push kids to try things they don’t want to eat immediately. They ask the student simply to touch the new food. The next step might be to put the food to your lips. And then they work up to where the child is ready to taste the food,” she explains. “The teachers are aware of food allergies for students and always make sure they have a replacement for any allergen in a recipe the class is working on.”
Charleen adds that as students progress in nutrition class, the curriculum extends to cooking, also broken down into bite-size steps that are easier for students with autism to absorb. They teach kids how to make a grocery list, shop, pay the cashier, transport the food home, prepare the food and all the other steps that go into making a meal. “Connections does a great job of teaching the way our kids learn,” she says.
Taking initiative and transforming into a helper
After seven years at Connections, Kaitlyn has made significant personal and academic progress. “Kaitlyn has learned how to do so many things and now takes initiative. In the mornings, she gets out everything she wants to wear that day and makes her bed. She has become my little independent girl,” says Charleen.
Kaitlyn has also grown into a helper. She’ll help her family with laundry, dishes and paperwork. “I call her my spell checker. If I’m working at the computer and type a word incorrectly, she’ll take the mouse and correct it,” says Charleen.
And she loves to help at school. “Even in the summer or over breaks, she loves to come up here and help. Last summer, she even helped paint the walls,” adds Charleen.
“Kaitlyn has hit so many big milestones at Connections. It’s incredible to have a school that sees her potential and knows how to help her achieve it,” says Charleen.