April 14, 2009 in Features

On top of autism

The education of Dillon Monday has been both a struggle and learning experience for Mead Schools
Ross Carper Correspondent
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Dillon Monday, 18, left, talks with Laura Bergmann, a para-educator, about what he should be doing inside the coffee shop at Mead High School. Monday is autistic and gets vocational training through his work in the school’s espresso stand. Bergmann is Monday’s classroom aide.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

If you go

“What Works in Treating Autism: Examining the Evidence”

What: The sixth annual Lindaman Lecture, given by special education professor Betty Fry Williams

Where: The Robinson Teaching Theatre at Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Hall

When: Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Information: Call (509) 777-4263

Dillon Monday can do things with PowerPoint that would dazzle its creators at Microsoft – things that breathe unfamiliar life into the usually sterile presentation software.

For instance: If your next corporate presentation needs to lighten up with a hand-drawn (well, mouse-drawn) whimsical character enduring animated slapstick misfortunes, then Monday is your man.

Sitting in silence, Dillon is immersed in his work so deeply that he breathes to the rhythm of the mouse clicks. One after another, he opens dozens of toolbars and windows, gives input with precise keystrokes, and closes them again.

Minutes later, his characters can run, jump, and interact. Their facial expressions change. They send pancakes flipping into the air. They are hit by surprise avalanches of snow that appear from off-screen.

When he is finished, Dillon’s PowerPoint presentations are homemade, original animated shorts that rival Mickey Mouse’s earliest incarnations.

• 

Dillon has grown up with autism as a part of who he is. Now, he is fully grown – he is 18 and will soon graduate from Mead High School.

For his parents, Jim and Becky Monday of north Spokane, graduation day will be another victory in an ongoing line of hard-fought battles. Like all parents, theirs has been a journey full of joys, pains and desiring the best for their son.

For Mead Schools, Dillon’s education thus far (he will probably continue in a postgraduate program until age 21) has been a learning process – a dynamic, collaborative effort between teachers, administrators and the Monday family.

Each child is unique, but Dillon, who moved into the district in fourth grade, represented new territory. He was intelligent for his age, but because of his autism, he struggled greatly with social interaction, and had a hard time focusing on academic tasks without being prompted.

Comprehending the material wasn’t the problem, so a traditional special education plan for students with developmental disabilities didn’t quite fit.

“Dillon’s needs were something they hadn’t encountered yet: an autistic student with a normal IQ that could function in a mainstream classroom with the help of a one-on-one para-educator,” Jim Monday recalls.

When the family moved from Santa Cruz, Calif., they asked the district about this plan and, at first, received an uncertain response. When the Mondays pushed harder, appealing to the legal mandate to provide a fair education to students like Dillon, the district hired a para-educator within days.

Theresa Frost worked exclusively with Dillon from fourth through sixth grade at Midway Elementary.

“It took a lot of intentional communication, and there were some struggles,” Frost said. “The main struggle, and everyone’s goal, was to determine what was best for Dillon – a general education setting or a more restricted environment.”

To the Mondays, Frost was a godsend; she provided a compromise between those two strategies.

“At the time, I’d never met anyone with autism before,” Frost said. “Determining my role was a real tug-of-war. Of course I wanted to step in and help him, but I also wanted him to be perceived as just Dillon, one of the kids.”

When she remembers the time she spent striking this balance with Dillon, there are too many moments to describe. His blunt honesty could shed humor on any situation. His bad days were very difficult. His artistic ability was never in doubt.

“Early on, I remember Dillon picturing a pinball machine and drawing it in the air with his finger, tracing the path of the ball,” Frost recalls.

His incentive for finishing a given lesson was free-drawing time. When he finished his work that day, he sketched the detailed pinball machine he’d been designing feverishly in his head.

• 

The commitment to Dillon’s education has continued through the years, with both disappointments and dividends.

The ongoing goal for his para-educators to “work themselves out of a job” – for Dillon to gain independence without sacrificing learning – hasn’t happened yet. However, his parents beam with pride as they report that Dillon recently passed the adapted WASL test, a major long-term goal.

His outbursts of violent frustration have steadily declined every year. He works as a barista at Mead’s Panther Perk, meticulously mixing mochas and macchiatos while developing social skills in a work environment.

Over time, Jim and Becky have occasionally “butted heads” with educators. Years ago, one particular administrator proved especially challenging for the Mondays. Recently, Jim ran into her in public.

“To her credit,” he said, “she approached me and said, ‘I have to apologize. Looking back, we thought we knew what we were doing, but really, we learned a lot.’ ”

The Mead School District may be better prepared because of Dillon, but it would be an oversimplification to generalize about autism from his particular journey.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is just that – a spectrum from which each person represents a unique shade, an intricate combination of needs and talents.

Understanding these students enough to make a plan isn’t a puzzle to be pieced together by a system. It occurs through relationships.

Theresa Frost understands relationships – she works now as a parent liaison at Shiloh Hills Elementary, helping to provide a bridge between the school and the families it serves.

Soon, she’ll keep a promise she made to Dillon when he finished sixth grade. When he wears his cap and gown in June, she’ll be seated alongside the Mondays, cheering him on.

• 

Dillon is riding the front end of a growing wave. When he was born, the rate of infants diagnosed with ASD was roughly one in 1,000. Today, it has inflated to one in 150, and for males, the rate is one in 94.

There are speculations and theories about causes, but there isn’t a consensus or a cure. Treatments are almost innumerable – there are more than 500, according to Betty Fry, professor of special education at Whitworth University.

As for the wave of people with ASD who are aging into adulthood, Williams responds to an imminent question: Is our society prepared for what some are calling “the Age of Autism” from an educational, residential and employment standpoint?

“The answer is ‘no,’ ” she said without hesitation. “We are not prepared. There is a great deal of interest and research, but it is difficult to keep up with the number of diagnoses.

“On the preschool side, we’re short on specialists. On the adult side, we’re short on programs. And many of the people with real expertise are doing their work in the community, so we’re also without enough professors to train new experts.”

As Dillon has grown up, one of his parents’ greatest fears was that he would be “pigeonholed” in school because of his disability, leaving his true potential untouched.

Now, this fear extends to Dillon’s employment opportunities. His abilities are numerous, but he can only hone them when his interest is piqued. In the PowerPoint animations, his focus and efficiency are astounding because of his unwavering, near-obsessive goal of making a cartoon.

“Our best bet (for meaningful employment for people with ASD) is to develop talent in an area with a high level of interest,” Williams said.

She also points to adult educational opportunities in our area, lauding Spokane Public Schools “Community Images” – a vocational program that serves students through age 21 on the Spokane Community College campus – and regarding downtown Spokane’s Northwest Autism Center as a great community resource for everyone affected by ASD.

Fighting to develop community connections, friendships, and some form of independence is vital. Williams often reminds parents that the temptation to cater to their autistic adult child’s desire to remain alone is dangerous. As parents become elderly and incapable of providing care, it is important that other support systems have been established.

For friends and family of adults with ASD, it seems the best form of support is to work toward a “mainstream” life in terms of basic goals: employment that captivates one’s interest and meaningful, supportive relationships.

We all want these things, and in every case along the autism spectrum, the challenges and successes in working toward them will be unique.

• 

Back at his computer screen, Dillon has added a new dimension – literally. He has used Microsoft Paint to create a 3-D image from scratch, causing his dinosaur character’s teeth to jut out menacingly from the screen.

He has paper 3-D glasses on hand to prove that his technique is a success. When asked how he figured it out, he is good-natured but exasperated:

“With red and blue, of course.”

His parents hope to keep adding healthy dimensions to their son’s adult life.

“Like any parents of an 18-year-old graduate, we would love to be able to open up the world to him,” Jim Monday said.

In a recent self-reflective essay for his senior portfolio, Dillon’s closing lines are strikingly similar:

In conclusion, I’m still like other people because we all live in the same universe. It doesn’t matter whether you have autism or not. It’s normal and people with autism need to be given a chance to live in the whole planet.

Thank you!

Signed,

Dillon Monday


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