Gabe’s bright smile masks the pain and struggles he has experienced just to get an education. Because of his autism and behavior disorders, Gabe was transferred from school to school, making little progress. By age 11, he had attended five different schools and was performing at a Pre-k level.
At one school, the focus was on controlling behavior rather than education. Ironically, Gabe’s behavior became increasingly worse when he began attending that school, and he became depressed and exhibited symptoms of severe anxiety. Especially upsetting to his mother, Kristina, was that Gabe was so desperate for friends and social interaction that he would allow himself to be bullied just to get attention.
Gabe’s verbal abilities were limited. He could not recognize any words by sight or do any math. Kristina knew that Gabe needed a specialized school, but the school system was unwilling to provide it, despite having substantial documentation of Gabe’s diagnoses and his needs. Kristina turned to Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy and Law), a Kennedy Krieger Institute program. Project HEAL is a team of attorneys who specialize in disability law. The Project HEAL team provides up to ten hours of legal work on a sliding scale, bringing expert legal help within reach of all families, regardless of their means.
When Maureen van Stone, founder of Project HEAL, heard Gabe’s story, she knew they could help. Gabe’s case was assigned to Mallory Finn, one of the Project HEAL attorneys. Mallory contacted the school system to discuss Gabe’s case. When Kristina met with the school official, prepared to once again make the case for Gabe, she was told that the decision had already been made to approve Gabe’s attendance at a school better suited to his needs. After years of trying, Kristina was floored. “When I went to the meeting with the schools to talk about Gabe, they agreed to place Gabe in a specialized school like I had been requesting for years. It was amazing.”
She was also impressed that Project HEAL approached each child as an individual. “They didn’t just look at his files. They looked at his pictures,” Kristina said. “They are not just lawyers. They care about the kids. They go above the call.”
She said that Mallory even helped get Gabe into a summer program at the school he would attend in the fall. “Once he started the summer program, everything began to change,” she said. Gabe was calmer and he listened better.
“Now I can tell him to do chores and he will do them. It has allowed me to be a mom again,” said Kristina.
Gabe has begun to exhibit some of the potential that she knew he had all along. The summer program introduced Gabe to computer programming, which he took to right away. Most encouraging to Kristina is that Gabe’s greatest wish has come true: He has made a friend.