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Student Spotlight: Zakeem's Journey From Nonverbal to Flourishing

Meet Zakeem, a remarkable young man who has transformed from a nonverbal, disconnected child to a thriving, engaged student at Connections Education Center. As he prepares to graduate from middle school this month, we look back at just how far he has come.

Zakeem learning at school

Early Challenges With Autism

For Zakeem and his family, the early years were difficult. As a young child, he was completely nonverbal and largely disconnected from those around him. His grandmother, Angela, remembers, “At first, we thought he couldn’t hear because he didn’t respond at all when we called his name.”


Zakeem would point or lead caregivers by the hand to communicate his needs. Potty training seemed an insurmountable task, and he withdrew from other children, even at his daycare, which was designed for typical children. “The daycare staff told us they were concerned about Zakeem because he didn’t respond to them, didn’t want to play with other kids and wanted to be alone,” Angela recalls. “I started researching those behaviors and realized he needed to be evaluated for autism.”


Finding the Right Support

At age three, Zakeem was diagnosed with autism, prompting Angela to search for a more suitable educational environment. After a brief time with Zakeem at a public school where he made no progress and was not being pushed to speak, Angela found Connections Education Center of the Palm Beaches and its early intervention preschool program. While observing the preschool class that Zakeem would enter, Angela was happy to see other students using words. “I told the teachers about the struggles we were having with Zakeem, especially with him being nonverbal. Their response impressed me. His teacher told me, ‘It’s in him. We just have to work on getting it out of him.’ I loved her confidence and prayed he would learn to speak,” says Angela.


The transition to Connections was a turning point. Within just three months, Zakeem was potty trained, a milestone that had seemed impossible before. His language skills began to develop slowly but surely. By age six, he was forming sentences; by nine, he could engage in conversations. Now finishing 8th grade, Zakeem speaks fluently. “He’s completely verbal now — sometimes too verbal,” Angela says with a laugh.


Academic and Personal Growth

Zakeem learning to bake garlic knots

Zakeem's progress at Connections has been nothing short of remarkable. While he may not be on grade level academically, he has become quite capable. He does well in math and reading. He loves gardening and culinary class, where he learns valuable life skills. He’s been able to participate in the Recipes for Success program, where he has learned how to use kitchen utensils safely, prepare meat and vegetables, use an oven and stove safely, bake bread, and create a variety of healthy dishes.


He has an impressive memory, which you can see simply by asking him about any movie. “He loves movies and can tell you what year any movie came out or will come out,” Angela shares.


At Connections, Zakeem has also learned to swim and is proficient in the pool or ocean. This skill is particularly crucial for children with autism, who face a higher risk of drowning. Living in Florida, where water is abundant, this skill is essential.


“Each kid is different, and each one has abilities that we know are in there — even if those abilities aren’t visible yet. Connections teachers are good at finding out what your child can do and bringing out those abilities,” says Angela, Zakeem's grandmother.

Social Advancements

Socially, Zakeem has made tremendous strides. Initially, he would interact only with adults, avoiding his peers. Now, he engages with other students and plays with his cousins. He has developed an impressive sense of self-regulation, knowing when he needs to take a break from social interactions to decompress. “He likes to engage with other kids for a while and then when he’s had enough, he goes off by himself,” Angela notes.


Zakeem's relationship with his younger sister is particularly heartwarming. Despite his general reluctance to be touched by others, he allows his sister to hug and interact with him affectionately. “She can jump on him and hug him. While he doesn’t interact that way with other people, he allows big hugs from his sister,” says Angela.


Zakeem gently holding a duckling

Connections’ director of operations, Jason Portman, says that Zakeem has made so much progress socially that he now helps younger students while volunteering in the school’s After Care Program. “When the younger children work on social skills and projects in After Care, Zakeem demonstrates the skills and activities for them,” Jason says. “They respond really well to him.”


Angela notes that Zakeem’s large stature can be intimidating to people who don’t know him. She hopes people will take the time to get to know him and see his kind heart. “He is the most lovable kid you’ll ever meet,” she says. 


A Bright Future

Zakeem ready to go to swim class

As Zakeem prepares to graduate from middle school this month, he and his family are optimistic about this future. Angela hopes that Zakeem will continue progressing academically and graduate from Connections High School & Vocational Center. She also hopes he will learn more skills necessary for independence. “The life skills they’re teaching him now, I’m hoping he can master those so that longer term, he’s able to work and take care of himself,” she explains. 


While she doesn't expect him to live entirely on his own, she envisions a future where he can hold a job, take care of himself and fit into society in a meaningful way.


More Than A School — A Family

Angela is a strong advocate for Connections, often recommending the school to other families. “I tell others that Connections is very family-oriented, which is unusual, especially at schools for special needs students. Once you go to Connections, you are family and they care about you,” she says. 


She adds that the team at Connections excels at recognizing and nurturing each student’s strengths. “Each kid is different, and each one has abilities that we know are in there — even if those abilities aren’t visible yet. Connections teachers are good at finding out what your child can do and bringing out those abilities,” she says.


Zakeem celebrates a birthday at school

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