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Part 3 of special series on autism: Mother pushes son to do all he can

By JR Ortega
Nov. 26, 2011 at 5:26 a.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2011 at 5:27 a.m.

Travis Noack, 14, gives his teacher, Melissa Morton, a hug after school. Morton is a special education teacher who has been working with Travis for three years to help his transition into middle school. "They call him my boy here at Howell," Morton said. "He has come a long way in three years, and I couldn't be prouder of him."

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Victoria ISD's ABLE rooms help special needs children on an individual level to reach their goals.

The Education Service Center Region 3 in Victoria covers 40 school districts across 11 counties and has a autism education consultant who can work toward mainstreaming higher functioning autistic children.

The possibility to have a high school to college and workforce transition program for high-functioning autistic people could be seen as soon as next year.

Programs like Special Olympics can help increase a high-functioning autistic's social skills.

EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICES

The following is a list of three evidence-based practices for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. These practices are used by Victoria ISD.

Social Skills Training Groups - Helps with interaction between peers. These groups are typically small, with two to eight people and a teacher and an adult facilitator. The groups usually include instruction, role-playing and feedback.

Visual Supports - Visual cues, like pictures, written works or objects in the environment are a successful tool for people on the spectrum.

Structured Work Systems and Activity Organization - Structured environments are helpful for those on the spectrum. A work system communicates the tasks that need to be done, how much work there is to complete it, how they will know when they are finished and what to do when they're finished.

For some of the other evidence-based practices, visit autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu

The gentle giant marches in a hurried step down one of Howell Middle School's hallways.

Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, 14-year-old Travis Noack makes the wide hallway seem much narrower.

His booming body does not match at all his soft voice and playful demeanor.

Travis is different, something he does not fully understand.

This is because Travis' mother, Sheila Arnold, has done well at protecting him - not from others, but from himself.

He is taught in the same classrooms alongside other eighth-graders.

To be mainstreamed with others is something his mother has continued to fight hard for, and it never gets any easier.

You see, Travis is a high-functioning autistic, and he doesn't really know it.

Boundaries and structures

Travis' mother watches her son round his large-framed back, shoulders rolled forward, ready to putt.

His concentration is right on par.

Despite his large size, he gently taps the golf ball, rolling it across the green and sinking it to the bottom of the hole with a resounding clink.

"All right! Did you see that?" Travis' voice echoes excitedly to the others on the green.

Travis is playing with other special needs children, practicing for the Special Olympics.

His mother stands stern and adjacent him, clapping at his achievement.

If he were treated as though he were different, would that hole-in-one have happened?

Travis' mother will never know, and she has chosen not to know since day one.

"If you treat someone like they have a handicap, they're going to act like they have a handicap," she said.

Christie Soliz, a Victoria behavior analyst, works with kids privately and with school districts and state facilities to create and maintain behavior plans.

Soliz has never met Travis, but said not dwelling on the disorder as a hindrance is important in an autistic's success.

People such as Travis, whose primary issue is behavior, have a high chance of being independent, she said.

"It's all about changing a lot of the variables that feed behaviors," she said.

The younger the person, the easier it is to change those behaviors.

Travis was raised this way, his mother said.

Because of that, he is almost always on the A-B honor roll and goes home and completes his homework like other students.

His favorite subjects are math and science.

"He wants to figure out how things work," she said. "If it wasn't for the behavioral side effects, he'd be a genius."

Arnold speaks specifically about the experience in transitioning to middle school.

The pain in her eyes is real, something unseen for this powerful-looking woman sporting a short, blonde, I-mean-business hairstyle.

She retells horror stories of school lockdowns - an out-of-whack Travis barreling through the hallway, storming out of the building and darting across heavy Mockingbird Lane traffic.

She recalls rushing to the school several times a day.

Her eyes dart left and right as she reaches deep into her mind for a memory she would like to forget.

This is because life is not like that anymore. Travis has managed to cope with his autism to integrate with his peers.

The middle school has structured his schedule.

"It's when he has his meltdowns," his mother said. "That's when it becomes a problem in society."

A new course

Travis is back on the green.

This time, his goal is to drive the golf ball over a net.

His attempts fall short. His broad shoulders sink down as he goes to the back of the line.

"It's OK, Travis," his mother says as she accepts his hug. Tears now run down his cheeks as he rests his head on his mother's shoulders. "This is why we practice."

His mother pushes his face back up and insists he can do anything he sets his mind to.

"But I want to be perfect," Travis sobs.

Arnold won't take no for an answer; she knows he can do it.

As his sniffles begin to cease, he takes one last whack at getting the ball over the net.

This time, he succeeds.

"Just believe in yourself," Travis says. "Concentrate and believe in yourself."

Going mainstream

A wiry, animated woman yells out of a room at the end of a hallway at Travis' school.

"See you tomorrow, T," exclaims Melissa Morton, Travis' special education teacher.

"I love you," he blurts back as he dashes out of the room.

Morton has been instrumental in transitioning Travis, or T, as she has dubbed him, into middle school.

Now on the third year of training him, she has seen him come a long way.

Like Travis' mom, she, too, remembers his flight-or-fight episodes.

He is now able to sit through all seven of his classes, a tremendous feat in Morton's eyes.

This is the thanks to the ABLE room, a classroom used to train Travis.

"It is so big that he is recognizing how he processes," she said. "He is cognizant of the fact that he's different, and that's a huge accomplishment for T to be able to do that."

Travis has a designated safe place, a classroom with a kindergarten mat nestled against a wall under a white board.

The concept of this room was designed for Travis, something that hadn't been done before, but it worked.

Whenever Travis feels like bolting out of a classroom. He simply raises his hand and asks to leave or walks calmly out and to his room.

There, he is able to lie down and process the information he needs in the way he's used to doing.

Travis will usually slip off his shoes, lie down and hum. Then he can sit back up, slip his shoes back on and head to class.

"It took two and a half to three months to train him where to go and what to do," Morton said.

Morton has designed documentation for most of Travis' teachers.

She makes sure to keep the structure in place because most autistic children are easily affected and thrown off by changes.

Other autistic students also attend Travis' middle school but are in life-skills classes because they are lower functioning, Morton said.

Learning how to best handle Travis was a series of trials and errors.

School officials know thunderstorms send Travis into a panic, and teachers know not to tell the class they will be having a test. Instead, teachers say they will be having a "show what you know," Morton said.

The word "test" sends Travis into hyper-overdrive.

Next year, Travis will be leaving middle school to attend Victoria West, a prospect that worries Arnold and Morton.

"High school is my next fear for him," Travis' mom said. "I think it will be worse" than middle school.

She expects to gauge his range of dependency as he deals with puberty in full swing and the molding of young adults at hand.

Will he date one day? What about drive? Live on his own?

For Morton, her concern is not the education, but readjusting to a new schedule and a bigger environment.

"I'm really going to miss him big-time," Morton said. "He really is remarkable."

Sky is the limit

Lottie Tomko is all part of the autism mix and is somewhat behind the scenes.

Tomko is an education consultant with the Education Service Center Region 3 in Victoria.

She started working as a life skills teacher and now focuses on helping parents with understanding autism education. The center serves 40 school districts across 11 counties .

"If you've met one kiddo with autism, then you've met one kiddo with autism," Tomko said.

Tomko refers to how different each child is. Autistics are spread across the spectrum.

Some may be obsessive-compulsive; others may be sensitive to clothes, sounds, colors. The spectrum is never-ending.

In Region 3 schools, like Victoria ISD, students are served based on the needs they present with, much like Travis, who was, as Tomko put it, just one kid with autism.

"We have kiddos who are fully included with their peers, and some are in a class geared more toward autism," she said.

Soliz has seen this success firsthand.

Victoria ISD has improved services for high- and low-functioning autistic students.

Tomko also hopes to soon see more answers to autism. She feels one day those answers will be a reality.

"They're so unique. It's changed my life really," Tomko said. "It's just interesting sometimes to see the world through their eyes."

Having Region 3 has helped greatly, Arnold said.

This continues to give Travis' mom hope for the future.

Also, Travis will be at the high school with his older brother, Derek Noack, who has Down syndrome and is also mainstreamed.

But because Derek has Down syndrome, or mentally retardation, he has modified assignments, unlike Travis, who learns at the same level as his equivalent peers.

Arnold will just continue pushing her kids to the limit because it's the only way she knows how.

For a moment, her militant personality cracks.

"I have no idea why God gave me two special needs children," Arnold said in a whisper as she fought back tears. "Most parents try to hold on to their kids as long as they can. I have to push myself to the opposite end of the realm. I have to prepare my son so that he will push himself."

READ THE REST OF THE SERIES:

Part 1: Family learns to deal with diagnosis of their first-born son

Part 2: Mother tries to give her child a voice

Part 4: Mother hopes autistic son can live independently

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