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Differently abled: Local schools find gifts in autistic students

Berwyn, IL

Karol Sigda is as bright as he is troubled.

He knows nearly every dinosaur and the era they came from, but gets so frustrated by handwriting that he struggles to complete book reports. The 8-year-old Berwyn resident already has developed plots for three more “Star Wars” sequels, but sometimes lacks the social skills to effectively communicate with his classmates and teachers.

Sigda has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning diagnosis within the autism spectrum of disorders.
From an education standpoint, Sigda is problematic. He’s years ahead of his classmates in many ways, but still occasionally throws tantrums or just shuts down if he feels bored.

Rather than put Sigda and other children like him in special education classes, Havlicek Elementary School Principal Nancy Akin decided to try something new. Sigda and two other autistic third-grade boys were placed in a gifted program known simply as AIMS at the beginning of the most recent school year.

“We have known Karol and how bright he is since he’s been in kindergarten, and we wanted to give him and the other kids a chance to use their intellect,” Akin said. “One of the things that they talk about in the AIMS program is that every student has the right to optimal development, and we believe that too often, kids that are bright but have some kind of disability, for whatever reason, aren’t given that chance.”

Embarking on the AIMS program was an experiment, Assistant Principal Charles DeLeonardis admitted. But administrators and parents alike said they are pleased with the results and plan on continuing the program in the fall.

For Sigda’s parents, Ana and Janusz, Karol’s placement was a major relief. They always knew their son was talented and gifted, but feared he’d end up being left behind.

“We didn't want him to go into special education classes and just learn how to live in the community and not be cheated on the change when he goes grocery shopping,” Ana Sigda said. “I don’t have anything against it, if he ends up packing groceries for a living, but I know there’s more for him.”

Like many children diagnosed with Asperger’s, Karol shows gifts that border on fixations in certain areas. His parents knew he had potential, but realized that a standard classroom might not be able to harness his talents.

“We don’t want his gifts to be wasted because nobody knows how to tap into them,” his father added. “For me, it was like an improvement that they could actually accommodate his way of learning and not cut him off from learning and forget about him because he’s not fitting into one specific idea of learning.”

An assistant teacher was added to the AIMS classroom to help deal with occasional outbursts and worked with the boys using special techniques to help the them keep up where their autism diagnosis would otherwise get in the way.

For instance, Karol would experience trouble with handwriting because he wanted each letter to be perfect. So instead, he and the others were allowed to use laptops to type up reports or take spelling tests on tape recorders.

“It’s just the way his brain works,” AIMS program assistant Linda VanderNaald said of Karol. “He just needs to be challenged because otherwise, he's just going to fall through the cracks. If he was in a regular class, he’d be able to do the work, but they wouldn’t really realize how intelligent he is.”

Karol’s parents hope that by the time he enters high school, he’ll be able to attend regular classes. In the long run, they believe he could be successful in a research role or somehow using his seemingly boundless creativity.

But for now, he’s showing plenty of improvement.

“One of the goals with Karol was to have eye contact with people,” Akin said. “Now, he will look us in the eye and say, ‘good morning, Mrs. Akin.’ He will speak to us. Those things did not happen before.”

As for Karol, he said he likes his classes much more now. He was even able to give an oral report on the Civil War.

And he feels more relaxed and can prove just how smart he is, he said.

“They work with me now,” Karol said of his new gifted classes. “It’s harder, but I like hard.”

Autism speaks website
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