AJ is a highly intelligent, long-time Connections student who is now thriving in high school. Before Connections, he attended a public school where he struggled to meet expectations and his mom “had to fight for what he needed.” But the tipping point came the day he slipped away from school and ran down busy Glades Road until a stranger stopped him.
When AJ was a young child, life was filled with the unexpected, according to his mom Akemi. As a state-certified childcare worker who is well-versed in developmental milestones, she watched AJ’s development closely. At 12 months, 18 months, two years … things were on track except his speech was slightly delayed. The pediatrician and others assured Akemi that AJ was fine; he made good eye contact, played appropriately with toys and did not show the typical signs of autism. But shortly after his second birthday, things changed.
Suddenly, he experienced regression, and he started running away from his mom and other caregivers frequently. He began exhibiting aggression and threw more tantrums. Upon his diagnosis of autism, the family made his therapy a top priority. “We spent all our time outside of school going from one therapy appointment to another. I even learned how to do ABA therapy so I could do it at home with him,” she recalls.
“I watched through my window as neighborhood parents took their kids to soccer practice, piano lessons and friends’ birthday parties. It was a painful reminder that my kid is not like the others. I cried a lot,” says Akemi.
At his public school, she struggled to get him the help he needed. Akemi had learned that some schools were equipping nonverbal students with iPads and other technologies to enable them to communicate, which often diffuses many behavior triggers. But due to rules and regulations, they could not accommodate this request at school. “This was one of many disappointments with his school,” she recalls. “When I would head to the carline to pick him up from school, I always had to take a deep breath because I knew I was going to have to hear stories from teachers about what he did wrong that day. That was a terrible feeling.”
From these early years, one day stands out above all. AJ was at recess with his class one day when he slipped out of a gate that had been left unlocked. True to form, AJ took off running. His school was located near the very busy Glades Road, and AJ ran down that main road as fast as he could as his teachers trailed. A stranger driving by noticed him and thought it odd to see a young child running alone on the street. The stranger stopped his car and was able to catch AJ and hold him in place until his teachers arrived.
When Akemi was called about the incident, she was shocked to learn how easily he was able to put himself in such danger. She was even more shocked when his teachers blamed her for the problem.
That day, she began researching other schools for students with autism. She came across Connections (which was under a different name but led by our own Debra Johnson and Jason Portman) and made an appointment to tour. Soon, AJ was enrolled.
A New Start at a New School Connections teacher Pam Ludwick recalls, “When I met AJ, he was 8 years old. He had a very large communication device and had a hard time regulating his emotions. Elopement [running away unexpectedly] was and has been constantly on our radar, especially given his previous experience.”
At Connections, AJ is kept safe and given the environment and strategies he needs in order to learn. His strengths are recognized, and he has made a significant transformation.
“AJ is extremely intelligent,” says Pam. “If he ever feels like the work presented is below his ability or repetitive and boring, he lets you know this isn’t acceptable.”
Beyond academics, he has learned independent-living skills like folding clothes, setting the table, cleaning tables and even some cooking skills. He swims weekly and loves swimming in the deep end with his instructor.
Pam says his team has worked hard to close the gap between AJ’s receptive language (understanding spoken or signed words) and his expressive language (outward communication) -- a gap that has been a source of frustration for AJ. But before any specific learning objectives could be achieved, teachers realized they needed to earn his trust. Pam says, “AJ is a very relationship-based student. If you respect him, he respects you. Building that trust with him is so important.”
Efforts at school and home have paid off. Pam says, “AJ is having the best year that I’ve seen in 10+ years. He’s building stronger relationships and communication skills daily.”
AJ is no longer a runner and his mom no longer worries about his safety at school. “As long as he’s at Connections, I don’t have to worry about anything because I know he’s in great hands,” says Akemi. “They share everything -- good or bad -- and we go from there. They share stories with me about AJ that make me smile, and they’ve become like an extended family. I’m not alone in this anymore.”
"We don’t live near Connections,” Akemi says. “I drive 120 miles a day so that he can attend Connections. I would drive to the moon if I had to.”
Planning for His Future While his mom celebrates every success, she worries for AJ’s future. He’s currently 19 and will continue to need support when he ages out of high school. “I think a lot about what we’re going to do after high school. He probably won’t be able to be an employee, but I want him to be able to be part of the community and perhaps volunteer,” she says.
When Akemi takes AJ to stores or the park, she says that people can tell that he’s different through his behavior. He’s 6’2” so they usually think he is an adult and quickly ask her where she found a program for adults with autism. “I’ve searched in Palm Beach and Broward counties for adult programs. There’s so much demand and not enough services,” she adds. “There’s a huge need.”
For now, she’s grateful he is part of the Connections High School and is proud of his progress. Looking longer term, she shares, “I strongly hope that he can do something where he can make others smile. His smile is contagious.