When Mellissa Smith looks at her 13-year-old son, Ellijah, she sees a bright, friendly boy who listens intently and tries to please.
She knows most people don’t see him that way. They assume that Ellijah, who is autistic and nonverbal, doesn’t understand them and isn’t very smart, the Oakland Park mom said. But since 2011, when Ellijah started attending Wingate Oaks Center in Fort Lauderdale, the boy has begun to thrive.
In two months, he was fully potty-trained. He started to use an iPad to communicate. For the first time, he made friends.
Wingate Oaks Center is scheduled to close at the end of the year as part of a consolidation of underenrolled public schools for special-needs children.
And his mother, a single parent, worries about what this will do to her son, who has gone through so much.
Born prematurely on Nov. 17, 1999, in Plantation, Ellijah Smith grew to be a smiling, happy toddler. But as the boy approached his third birthday, Smith said she knew something was wrong. “He didn’t talk or do some of the things other kids were doing,” she said.
After testing, her pediatrician told her to stop stressing him out trying to teach him things. “They didn’t see a capability to learn,” Smith said.
At age 5, officially diagnosed as autistic, Ellijah began learning visual cues, such as a stop sign his mom would hold up to halt tantrums. “I had to make pictures so he could show me what he wanted, but it was hard,” Smith said. “I’m not a mind reader.”
Then living in Pensacola, Ellijah attended a school for special-needs kids that was more of a day care, with too many kids and not enough trained specialists, Smith said.
At age 10, Ellijah started using a voice box that would say a phrase when he pushed a button. It had six choices: “Mom,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” “I want,” “I don’t like” and “Power Rangers,” his favorite cartoon.
“Can you imagine limiting your life to six phrases?” Smith said. “Sometimes he would get so upset and agitated he would throw the box. He would have all of these thoughts in his head and couldn’t communicate them.”
Ellijah uses sounds to communicate. He gurgles when he is happy and whimpers when he is sad. If he is angry or upset, his loud, piercing screeches alarm the neighbors, until Smith explains. “I don’t even hear it anymore,” she said. “I tune it out.”
Smith and her son lived in Pensacola until February 2011, when she lost her hotel job. They moved in with a relative in Atlanta, but after two of Ellijah’s tantrums, they were asked to leave. A friend from Fort Lauderdale invited her to stay, and told her about Wingate.
Hopeful, Smith drove down and moved into her friend’s one-bedroom apartment. Ellijah was enrolled at Wingate. But two months later, Smith’s friend asked her to move out. “It was too much for her; she didn’t have the patience,” Smith said.
With nowhere else to go, Smith and her son slept in her 2002 Hyundai Accent in the Walmart parking lot in Lauderdale Lakes. They stayed there for a week.
“That was rough, sleeping with a special-needs child in a car,” Smith said. “I didn’t sleep all week.”