Archive for Thursday, March 28, 2002

Making the most of a second chance

March 28, 2002

Paige Knight recently had a victory in the hallway of Kansas City, Mo.'s Marillac School.

"I was getting kind of angry," the 8-year-old said from the kitchen table in the Clearview City apartment she shares with her mother. "I was just about to punch something, but I wanted to see Gigi (her teacher). I took a couple of deep breaths and calmed down."

Six months ago, the outcome would have been very different. At that time, Paige's repeated outbursts at Starside Elementary School had her mother, Donna Nixon, and the school looking for options.

"Anything that didn't go her way, she went into an absolute meltdown," Nixon said. "She would knock over her desk. At one point, she picked up her chair and threatened a teacher."

Although Paige's tantrums were increasing in severity last fall, her daughter's behavioral problems first appeared when she was a toddler, Nixon said.

"I started babysitting when she was 2 years old," she said. "She couldn't mesh with other children. She'd get angry and have tantrums."

Thirteen months ago, Nixon learned her daughter had Asperger's disorder. The diagnosis explained Paige's temper tantrums and her remarkable abilities.

"The light went on," Nixon said of the diagnosis. "She was counting to 20 and saying her ABCs when she was 2. If I read to her from a book once, she would know what was on the page when I turned to it."

Nixon sought help for Paige long before she was diagnosed. When she was 3, Paige was enrolled in a special needs preschool after an assessment found she qualified for emotional and social problems.

Despite reoccurring problems, Paige advanced through preschool and kindergarten. Nixon said her daughter made it through second grade with the help of her teacher Mindi Bret, with whom Paige had a good relationship. But, last summer Paige suffered a traumatic event. Meanwhile, Nixon removed her daughter from therapy and took her off prescription drugs because of financial strain.

The events set the stage for a disastrous return to school last fall. Paige often had to be removed from the classroom, restrained and, often, sent home from school.

Larry Meyer, district special needs coordinator, said all parties involved realized Paige needed more help than the district could offer.

"I think the district does an excellent job of providing a full-range of services for all our special needs children, whether they have developmental needs or behavior needs," he said.

But the district doesn't have the numbers to provide specialized instruction and environments to its few students with behavioral problems. In those cases, the district contracts with outside sources, while it continues to monitor the students' progress and instruction with the goal of returning the child to district classrooms, Meyer said.

The solution in Paige's case was the Marillac School in downtown Kansas City, Mo. The school offers small, structured classrooms one teacher and an aide are assigned to Paige and seven other students and individual therapy, said Marillac Principal Fran Hirt.

Asperger's is a form of autism, but there are differences, Hirt said. Those with Asperger's generally are higher functioning and verbal. Both are prerequisites for enrollment at Marillac, which is limited to children who can succeed in school.

Paige, like many others with Asperger's, has above-average verbal skills, Hirt said. Still, communication and social interactions are a challenge.

"They have real difficulty picking up the social cues we all take for granted," she said. "They can't generalize social situations.

"If a teacher corrects a class, people with Asperger's personalize what was said and hear it as directed at them. They see everything as just them. They don't have that sense of other people out there. There is no sense of empathy."

People with Asperger's feel singled out and are easily angered by any slight to their keen sense of justice, Hirt said. Unfortunately, anger outbursts and other behavioral quirks associated with Asperger's bring an individual with the disorder more attention, contributing to their sense of being singled out.

"It's a vicious cycle," Hirt said.

To break that cycle and instill feelings of trust, Marillac attempts to make students feel safe, Hirt said. Paige came to the school with full of insecurities, she said.

"When she first got here, she wouldn't even put her head in arms on the desk because she was afraid of the dark," she said. "She wouldn't raise her hand to ask the teacher for help. If she didn't understand a lesson she would throw a fit and turn over the desk."

Such behavior would get Paige placed in an isolation room and in restraints. But unlike public schools, Marillac never sends students home. They are taught there are consequences and rewards for behavior, Hirt said.

Students feeling threatened are allowed to go to a safe room, where they can surround themselves with objects that put them at ease, Hirt said. As a reward for good behavior, students are given credits they can spend at a school store.

"That was extremely important to Paige," Hirt said. "She couldn't do that if she was put in restraints. I can't remember the last time she was in restraints.

"Paige has made tremendous progress. She is exceptionally perceptive as to how to use therapy. A lot of kids don't have the insight to say, 'OK, I need to work on this, this and this.'

"She's a very bright young girl."

Hirt credited much of Paige's progress to Nixon's efforts.

"Paige is fortunate in that she has a very involved mother who wants desperately for her to reach her full potential," she said. "She's doing all the right things getting Paige into outside therapy, getting her involved in Brownies and in church activities.

"That's the difference in Paige leaving here next year or taking us three to five years to reach her."

Nixon is appealing for the community's help in Paige's efforts to overcome her disability. The Victory Place Church has been supportive, but Nixon said she hoped the community saw her daughter's improvements and is accepting of her disorder.

"She's not the same girl anymore," Nixon said. "She's in the right program now. They'll give her the tools to deal with it.

"Two little girls she plays with told her 'if our mom finds out we played with you, we're grounded.' It tears me up."

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