by Terry Rogers
Jessica Jones’ son, Harley, began his education at Milford School District when he was in pre-school. By the time he was ready for Kindergarten, Jones felt that the district would be unable to meet his needs as Harley is on the autism spectrum and is non-verbal.
“He would have been the only non-verbal Kindergartener,” Jones said. “We just felt we needed to find a place that would be better able to help him. We took him to a different district where he had to spend over two hours on the bus but where he was able to get what he needed. By the time he was halfway through second grade, however, we felt he was no longer getting the academic challenges he needed.”
Jones reached out to Laura Manges, Director of Student Services at Milford School District, and asked her to attend the next IEP meeting for Harley. Jones expected to see a teacher or a special education specialist when she arrived.
“When I walked into that meeting, Laura was there with another special education coordinator, the teacher he would have and others who would be on his team if we moved him to Milford,” Jones said. “I was completely blown away that they greeted us with open arms and wanted so badly for Harley to return to the district.” Manges explained that that Milford School District now offered an autism program at Morris Early Childhood Center and at Lulu Ross Elementary with plans to expand the program to other schools in the future.
Harley has been back in Milford School District for just over one year now and Jones said his teacher, Danielle Brumbley, is absolutely amazing with her son, even getting emotional when she talks about how Brumbley loves Harley wholeheartedly and is always working to help him achieve. Harley, who is now in third grade, attends class with first through third graders which works well for him since he is learning at grades lower than third in some subjects.
“At his other school, Harley gained a lot of life skills, but he just wasn’t challenged academically,” Jones said. “He learned how to button and zip his pants at the other district along with other things to help him in life, but he is very smart. We also worried that he would regress if we moved him to a new school. Danielle has been so wonderful, though, that he never regressed. He is able to do addition which he loves. But the biggest achievement is that he can now answer yes and no to questions. This has completely opened u another opportunity for him to be able to tell us what he wants. Of course, like most kids, he often says no to things he has to do anyway, but it is a huge step toward him starting to use his voice.”
When Harley moves to fourth grade, he may no longer have Brumbley as a teacher but his classroom will be right next door. This can be critical for children on the autism spectrum as they often do not do well with change. Jones said that Harley was fairly laid back when it came to schedule changes but there were some aspects of change that he doesn’t like. The fact that he has had Brumbley for two years and will be close to her next year is important for continuity in a child like Harley.
Jones also has a daughter, Georgia, who is in first grade at Lulu Ross Elementary School who is excited that she and her brother get to go to the same school. Jones is also impressed by other staff at Ross, explaining that two weeks before school began, the principal noticed that Georgia was not on the list of students. She did some research and found that the Jones family actually lived in the Mispillion Elementary attendance area. The same day she called Jones to tell her, the principal had mailed a school choice application that would allow Georgia to attend Ross with Harley.
“For the principal to know that out of all those kids on the list, my daughter was not on it, that says something about how great they are with kids,” Jones said. “I have started volunteering a few days a week in Harley’s classroom just to give back to the program as much as I can. This came exactly when we needed it.” Harley was also excited that he would have the same bus driver as he did when he was in pre-school at Milford.
According to Autism Delaware, there were 152 public school students with autism in 1991. In 2017, that number had risen to 2,109. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 out of 59 children under the age of 8 could be placed on the autism spectrum and 50,000 teenagers age out of the school-based programs each year.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, the symptoms and characteristics can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. There is no standard or type for someone who is on the spectrum.
“There is really no honest answer to what causes autism,” Manges said. “There is growing evidence that it may be an auto-immune response. In other words, someone may have autistic tendencies and something triggers them to begin exhibiting autistic symptoms. Research is being done and many studies are finding a connection to autism and auto-immune issues.”