Winnie Welles and Ryan Murray are best friends, and about to embark on an adventure unlike any they’ve experienced before. They are aging out of the Bridge 3 program at the Edgartown School, and moving on to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in the fall. They’re eighth graders who have been in the same class together since they started out in Project Headway, an inclusive preschool program with typical and special-needs students.
Both Winnie and Ryan are artistic. Ryan likes to construct art using a computer; he’s particularly adept at reading code, and loves to try out new fonts. Winnie creates beautiful drawings that look like something out of an anime book.
Their parents are hoping that they will continue to develop and pursue all the things they enjoy as they move up to the high school. Winnie and Ryan didn’t seem particularly worried about the changes lying ahead when I met them at the Edgartown School recently.
“Be sure to remember to introduce yourself to Ryan,” Winnie told me when I shook her hand in the Bridge classroom. Ryan was busy making a jelly bean bracelet before heading off on spring break. He did make time for introductions, but Winnie is definitely the more gregarious of the two. It wasn’t all that long ago that neither of them spoke at all.
An emotional discussion
John and Rose Murray, Ryan’s parents, and Alison Hammond and Rod Welles, Winnie’s parents, credit Bridge teachers Kerry Branca and Kara Johnson for their children’s amazing progress. I sat with the teachers and the parents for an honest and sometimes tearful discussion about autism and the impact teachers can have on the lives of the students and their families.
Kerry has been with Winnie and Ryan since they were in preschool; Kara has known them both since they were in second grade. The bond between Winnie and Ryan has grown over the years, Kerry said. “I’m pretty sure Winnie made the first move,” Kara laughed.
“I noticed it when Winnie started dressing like Ryan every day,” Alison remembered. “They were the only two in the class with sunglasses on inside.”
Kara said that the two friends always sit next to each other on the bus anytime there’s a field trip. Not long ago, she thought she’d see if Ryan would sit with another student instead, but he stood up on the bus and declaimed, “Where’s Winnie?”
Winnie looks out for Ryan, making sure he puts a coat on when it’s cold outside, or asking him if he’s hungry or thirsty. When Ryan was younger, his parents explained how difficult it was to follow the Bridge teachers’ instructions, which meant not always allowing Ryan to have his way when he was home. For instance, Ryan preferred to lead his parents by the hand to the refrigerator when he was thirsty rather than ask for a drink. The teachers were sure Ryan could use words to express what he wanted.
“We had always just done it, but the school said don’t do it,” John said. “We’d sit and wait, sometimes for a long time, and we’d worry that he was thirsty. Finally, he said, ‘Water.’”
Alison talked about how difficult it can be raising a child with autism at a time when there are plenty of news stories about autism’s growing numbers, but not a lot of the reality of day-to-day life being brought to light.
“Our first child was so easy, so different from this other reality,” Alison said. “You need encouragement from outside yourself. It’s hard.”
When Alison would lay out Winnie’s outfit for the school day, Winnie would inevitably go into the dirty laundry and put on something soiled she’d worn before: “I looked like a bad mother, and she’d show up at school in dirty clothes.” Winnie’s teachers took the time to speak to Alison privately about the clothing.
“There are so many impressive moments with these teachers,” Alison said. “I think they could use about nine more assistants. They’re there because they’re dedicated, and I hope the school system knows that.”
Co-director of Student Support Services Hope MacLeod was there at the beginning of the implementation of the first Bridge class, and knows Winnie and Ryan well.
“We had three students on the autism spectrum coming up that year, into kindergarten from Project Headway, so we knew we needed to do something,” Mrs. MacLeod said.
The school district contracted with the Center for Children with Special Needs in Connecticut, and the director, Dr. Michael Powers, who specializes in diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of persons with autism, reviewed what was coming down the road for the district. The school district administration considered his recommendations, and the first Bridge program was developed. The district still relies on expertise from Dr. Powers, and now also from behavioral specialist Dr. Mark Palmieri.
“At that point, after doing more intensive training, we built our program,” Mrs. MacLeod said.
The students were included in regular education classes as much as they could be, and as they went through the program, they continued to progress. Mrs. MacLeod’s office is at the high school these days. “I’m so excited to be at the high school and to see them,” she said.
“Winnie was a beautiful little girl who did not have any language, and she was very imaginative, and wanted to stay in that place and didn’t want to come out,” Mrs. MacLeod said, remembering the Bridge program’s early days. “She wouldn’t pick up a pencil for years, and now she’s an amazing artist. Ryan was a very active little boy who always had great potential, great splinter skills [skills which can be impressive in themselves, but are ‘splintered’ or separated from their significance]. With him staying on task and directing his engagement, he has amazing potential staying in this world and focusing his attention on something he’s passionate about.”
Mrs. MacLeod said that the individualization within the Bridge program is what leads to success stories like Winnie and Ryan’s.
“We’ve been so lucky with continuity of teachers and ESPs [educational support professionals] in a field that sees a lot of turnover. We now have four Bridge teachers who have all been ESPs — Danielle Sherman, Meghan Brown, Kerry, and Kara. They are incredibly dedicated.”
Change lies ahead
Ryan’s mom, Rose, said she feels very fortunate that the Bridge program exists. “There was nothing, and they were able to put it together,” Rose said. “The behavior … parents have a hard time … it was like Ryan was in the terrible twos perpetually. The behaviors must be brutal for the teachers. A simple thing is enough to turn them upside down.”
“There’s frustration because they can’t communicate,” John said. Ryan is partially deaf, adding to his communication issues.
“When Ryan was smaller, he would run headfirst into the wall,” John said. “We tried everything — hearing aids, the Dynavox, iPads, drawing. We tried so many things. If he was sick, we’d draw body parts and see if he’d point to where it hurt. Now he tells us when he has a headache.”
“Yes,” Rose said. “Now if he falls down he says he needs to go the emergency room.”
Kara laughed, “When we went on the school ski trip last year, whenever he fell down, he’d say, ‘My bones are broken, I need to go to the emergency room.’ But then we’d get back up and keep going.”
The students are preparing for the transition to high school, even though they may not always be aware of it. Kara said she has Winnie and Ryan working on skills like writing a schedule, crossing the street safely, and working on what will be expected of them.
“We’re so much more worried than they are,” Kerry said. “They know it’s what eighth graders do.”
“But what if it’s the first day and Winnie says, ‘I’m not going’?” a concerned Alison asked the group.
“This whole school has been a family to them,” John said. “I’m worried about bullying from other classmates who may not understand them.”
“I grilled August, our older daughter, on that,” Alison said. “She said it [bullying] was few and far between; she could only remember one incident.”
Kerry said that the other Edgartown School eighth graders know Winnie and Ryan well, “and they’re very protective of them.”
Both families are in the planning stages of what the next school year will look like for their children. Their current teachers are part of the planning team that will develop their children’s new program.
“I hope they’re supported as much as they need to be, but not so much that they’re held back,” Kerry said.
Alison said she likes that the high school is geographically close to Alex’s Place and the YMCA. “And there are all the high school games to go to,” Alison said. “I just don’t want them to be lonely.”
Rose said she hopes there is some type of afterschool program for Ryan and Winnie next year, but currently there is no such program at the high school.
“People don’t see the necessity, that they have to be with their peers,” Rose said.
“My two older kids went to the high school, and it was like a production line,” John said. “These two are smart kids. The toughest part is the social interaction; that’s the biggest challenge.”
Rod said it is the support of Winnie’s peers that makes a real difference. “I have to say that before the teen years, just coming to the school to pick her up, I heard ‘Hey Winnie!’ Now, I have to admit, as 12 and 13 came along, I notice less of that.”
“It hurts,” Alison said. “Wouldn’t it be great if it made you feel cool to hang out with an autistic kid? I see it at dances; she’s there with them, but they’re doing their own thing, which they should be, I guess.”
Alison and Rod said that when Winnie was younger, she refused to go to school, and the teachers came to their home and brought her to school.
“I can never thank you enough,” Alison said tearfully. “It’s all of them, you know. They love your child.”
“You can’t replace that,” Rod said. Then he took a box of tissues off the table where the parents sat, offered it to Ryan’s dad, and joked, “How about those Patriots?”
Autism Awareness Fun Run/Walk
The Island Autism Group hosts its second annual Autism Awareness Family and Friends 5K Fun Run/Walk on Saturday, April 29. The event kicks off at 9 am at Katama airfield. Cost is $35 for individuals, $25 each for two, or $20 each for three or more. Sign up on race day by 8 am, or visit islandautism.org for more information. All proceeds benefit the Island Autism Group, a nonprofit organization that provides goods and services for Island students and families living with autism. Its goal is to fund a center on the Island, so that those with autism can have what they need without leaving their home base.