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Student Spotlight: Maya Transforms Into a Peer Leader

“This school is a God-send,” says Tania, whose daughter Maya is a happy high schooler at Connections. Early in Maya’s life, Tania struggled to find the right school for Maya to attend due to the severity of her daughter’s autism symptoms. Tania became accustomed to hearing educators say they didn’t know how to help Maya and that she couldn’t stay at their school. But when Maya came to Connections, everything changed.



Moving From School to School in the Early Days

When Maya started school as a young child, her autism symptoms were too much for the public school. She quickly transitioned to a specialty school for students with autism but even they were not able to help. “Maya used to cry incessantly. Her previous schools did the best they could but didn’t know how to help her be calm in the classroom,” Tania recalls. 


When asked to take Maya out of the specialty school, Tania moved her to Connections (which was known as Renaissance at that time and led by Debra Johnson, Jason Portman and many other current Connections team members). Tania hoped for the best in this move but braced herself for the inevitable phone call telling her that Maya could not stay. 


After Maya’s first few days at Connections, a phone call came, but the message was not as expected. “They asked me if we could work together to formulate a plan to help Maya. I’d never heard anything like that, and it had a profound impact on my life. Here was a school that was willing to work with me to help my daughter -- instead of just saying that she couldn’t stay,” says Tania.


Tania recalls how persistent Ms. Beth and the entire Connections team were in working with Maya. Even when she cried or screamed, they continued with the academic lessons and therapies. “They taught right through her crying,” says Tania. The team soon found that even while crying, Maya was learning. “She was retaining all that information, and when she was able to calm down, she showed that she had retained the lessons and could apply the information,” adds Tania. 


“Here was a school that was willing to work with me to help my daughter -- instead of just saying that she couldn’t stay,” says Tania.

Maya was nonverbal when she began attending Connections, using a bit of sign language to communicate. After just one year at Connections, Maya began speaking. “One day as she got onto the school bus for a field trip, she said to a parent volunteer, ‘Good morning, Ms. Gianna.’ The parent was stunned as this was the first time she had heard Maya speak, and she called me that day to tell me about the greeting,” Tania recalls.


A Personalized Approach to Learning

Maya has responded well to the personalized education plan developed by the Connections team and her family. One element -- Applied Behavioral Analysis, often referred to as ABA therapy -- has proven particularly effective for Maya. ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to enhance behavioral, social, communication, and learning skills. The team at Connections currently includes five board-certified behavior analysts and 10 registered behavior technicians to provide ABA services to students.


Each student’s personal plan also includes a unique health and fitness program to address challenges that children with autism often experience, such as self-restricted eating that may exclude many healthy foods as well as a lack of participation in sports and other exercise programs. “Maya’s personalized plan has helped her get fit by going for a walk and getting regular exercise,” says Tania. “Her teachers have also helped her work through sensory issues that were causing her to limit the foods she would eat. She has tried various foods that she wouldn’t previously eat -- like humus -- and has expanded the choices she’ll make.”


This personalized attention extends beyond the classroom. “Maya went through a phase where she did not want to go to school and would refuse to get ready, making our mornings challenging,” recalls Tania. “One morning, without me asking, Ms. Pam [Connections’ high school director] came to my house before school to check on Maya because she knew we had been having issues. When Maya saw Ms. Pam, she immediately got dressed and went to school.”


Tania continues, “Who do you know who will go this far above and beyond the call of duty to help a student and family? That's how the teachers at Connections are.”


A Different Mindset Makes a Difference

Over the years, Maya has made remarkable progress. She's now a talkative, sociable girl whose vibrant personality shines every day. Her mom attributes this progress to “a different mindset” demonstrated by the Connections team.


“Many schools want you to follow the one path they’ve selected. But Connections encourages us to try everything and anything to see what works for your child, and they’re supportive of approaches we’re trying,” says Tania. For instance, Tania put Maya on a gluten-free diet years ago, and it made a noticeable difference. The school works with Maya to maintain the gluten-free diet, even in health class, cooking class, and the Recipes for Success culinary program.


Cooking Up Success

Maya is one of eight Connections students who completed the Recipes for Success culinary program in the spring of 2023. This adaptive, semester-long culinary training program taught a wide range of culinary skills and kitchen safety, boosting students’ independent-living skills. At the end of the semester, Maya passed the ServSafe®️ Certification exam, which is required for employment in the culinary field. “The Recipes for Success program was wonderful,” says Tania. “Maya enjoyed attending and learned so much. Now she makes her own food at home, and I can leave her alone in the kitchen and know she’ll be safe.”


The Greatest Benefit

While Maya’s progress in speech, behavior, academics and life skills delights her mom, the most significant benefit is the peace of mind it brings. “Knowing that I can drop her off at school and know she will be safe and understood is the biggest thing for me. This alleviates so much stress for me and has improved our family life tremendously,” says Tania.


A Brighter Future

Maya continues to thrive and her current teacher, Ms. Tammy, has transformed Maya’s morning routine where now she runs out the door in the morning to “be on time for the Palm Tran,” which is what her family calls her ride to school. “Maya and Ms. Tammy even have their own personal songs and sayings together. Incredible!” says Tania.



Maya is a strong student who radiates positivity at school. She goes out of her way to include others in activities and generously shares her engaging sense of humor. She’s an incredible writer who enjoys sending letters to friends and family across the country. 

“At Connections, Maya acts like she’s one of the staff members,” says Tania. “She loves to help out at after-school events and even cooks for some special events. At the Gala, she volunteers as a greeter and loves it. I’m forever grateful for this school!”


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