Finding the Right Fit
After struggling to succeed in other schools, Diego found the support he needed to thrive—thanks to Kennedy Krieger’s specialized autism education programs.
On Diego German’s first day of kindergarten, his mother, Aura, received a phone call within the first two hours of school—Diego was being destructive and not following directions. Aura had long been worried about Diego’s hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and delays in speech, but her pediatrician had found nothing wrong. This time, she took him to a specialist who diagnosed him with high functioning autism and ADHD.
Aura enrolled Diego in a special education school, but it wasn’t the right fit. Teachers told her Diego needed a more challenging academic environment, so she enrolled Diego in another school. In third grade, Diego’s behavior grew worse—he talked during class, got out of his seat and walked around, and refused to follow rules. He had difficulty getting along with classmates, at times becoming physically aggressive. Motivational strategies didn’t work, and he seemed to be falling into a downward spiral.
“I was crying every day,” recalls Aura. “I was so frustrated and sad for him that he was having such a horrible time at school.” Desperate for a change, she asked for referrals to other schools. She visited several, but was most impressed with Kennedy Krieger’s Fairmount School.
“What really drew me to this place was the way the staff looked,” recalls Aura. “At other places the staff looked unhappy and tired. But at Kennedy Krieger, I noticed that everyone looked happy, glad to be working there, and smiling. You could tell by their facial expressions that they wanted to be there.”
After enrolling Diego in third grade at Kennedy Krieger’s Fairmount School, she and her husband noticed that Diego’s speech improved dramatically right away. He was using new words and putting together more sentences. Diego would come home and talk about his new friends and activities at school, which included speech, occupational therapy, mental health services, social skills group, and therapeutic music and art classes.
One of Diego’s behavioral challenges was learning to take others’ feelings into consideration. To help, his teachers gave him a journal with thought bubbles to write what he was thinking when interacting with someone else and what the other person was thinking—an activity designed to help him develop empathy and improve social skills. “That has taught him how to think about other people,” says Aura. “He learned that when he brings his little brother a gift, it makes him happy.”
Diego is still hyperactive because of his ADHD, but the school taught him self-awareness. He will sometimes say, “My engine is on high right now. I need to put it on just right.” He has also learned to express himself to others, for example by saying, “I don’t like how I’m feeling now…I need to be alone.”
When Diego is working on a particular issue, everyone—his teacher, his speech therapist, his occupational therapist, his music and art teachers—works on the same issue together. “It’s all interrelated, and that’s wonderful,” says Aura.
When Kennedy Krieger’s Montgomery County campus opened, Joanna Ingham—Diego’s teacher at the time—helped prepare him for the move to the new campus by writing him a book about what the transition would be like and the things he would see at his new school. The transition went smoothly, and Diego continued to thrive at the Montgomery County campus.
“Diego is one of our social models,” says Ingham, now assistant principal. “He takes into account the perspectives of others and will engage in conversations. He has significantly matured.”
Before coming to Kennedy Krieger, Diego didn’t make eye contact with people and didn’t like to be hugged. Now, at 15, he has learned how to be very loving, Aura says. “He tells us he loves us all the time, and he adores his little brother.”
According to Aura, other programs seemed to blame Diego’s inability to succeed on him, placing him in a timeout for obsessing or being disruptive. But at Kennedy Krieger, they found ways of motivating him so he could feel successful.
What helped in Diego’s case was a positive behavior program, which included a daily point sheet with personal goals—things like keeping hands to self, respecting peers, following directions, participating in class, and socializing appropriately. If he achieved his goals, he could earn points that could be traded for rewards, such as going to the school store and buying a toy or a candy bar. The school also helped Diego’s parents write up a behavioral program at home.
“What I love about Kennedy Krieger is that they support the family so we can carry on at home what he’s learning at school,” says Aura. “They are so devoted to students and families. Every time I think about it I feel like crying—this kind of support you don’t find anywhere.”
Diego is one of our social models. He takes into account the perspectives of others and will engage in conversations. He has significantly matured.
Joanna Ingham, assistant principal, Kennedy Krieger School Programs: Montgomery County campus
What I love about Kennedy Krieger is that they support the family so we can carry on at home what he’s learning at school. They are so devoted to students and families. Every time I think about it I feel like crying—this kind of support you don’t find anywhere.
Aura German, mother of Diego, age 15, Washington, D.C.