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.
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.”
At the school, teacher Tasha Rachel noticed how the boy’s clothes, usually pressed and neat, were rumpled. She saw the stress on Smith’s face, took her aside and asked what was wrong. “You could see she wanted more for her child, but she was just getting beaten down,” Rachel said. “But she still got him to school every day. She is a dedicated mom.”
Smith said she was afraid to tell the teacher they didn’t have a place to stay. “I asked her ‘Please don’t tell the authorities, or they will take my child,’ ” she said.
Smith was referred to HOPE South Florida, which helps the homeless with emergency crisis housing. Smith and her son were not a good fit for a traditional shelter because Ellijah couldn’t tolerate sleeping in a room with strangers, so the organization put them in a studio apartment.
Then the family qualified for HOPE South Florida’s transitional housing and moved to an efficiency apartment in Fort Lauderdale. An interior designer from the nonprofit researched calming paint colors, covering the walls in a baby blue and the floor in a sea-blue tile, Smith said. Volunteers brought in new sheets, towels, pots and pans, even stuffed animals for Ellijah. “It was unbelievable,” Smith said. They lived there from September 2011 to May 2012.
In December 2011, Smith got a job as a front desk receptionist at an accounting firm, after the head of the firm saw a video about HOPE South Florida helping Smith — its first special-needs family.
“People like Mellissa and Ellijah are vulnerable because of their circumstances,” said Robin Martin, executive director of HOPE South Florida, which houses 200 homeless families a year. “They need the community there to support them.”
In May 2012, Smith and Ellijah moved into their own apartment in Oakland Park and retrieved items they had stored in Pensacola. “The staff at Wingate helped Ellijah cope with all of the moving,” Smith said. “It’s hard for an average child to go through [life] not having a place to live — think of an autistic child.”
A new school
When Ellijah began school at Wingate Oaks, he was 11 and still wearing pull-up diapers. Smith said she had tried every potty-training method imaginable, but it wouldn’t take. Two months after starting Wingate, Ellijah was using the bathroom on his own.
The school uses iPads with special apps to teach students how to express emotions and wants. In September 2012, an outside donor gave Ellijah an iPad with an “Augmentative and Alternate Communication” app to help him communicate. Using the app, Ellijah can press buttons with a variety of emoticons to verbalize his wants and needs.
Because Ellijah is learning to express himself, he has fewer tantrums, Smith said. “He is more comfortable with himself, and is getting used to making mistakes,” she said. “That’s what he and I both need. I want him to grow.”
And because of training at Wingate, Ellijah now feeds and dresses himself. He brings his plate to the kitchen after dinner, and he has learned to put his jeans in the washing machine and dump in a cup of detergent.
At the after-school program at the YMCA, housed in his school building and staffed by school staff, Ellijah is learning to make microwave popcorn, his favorite snack. Because the boy doesn’t know how or cannot express physical pain, Wingate staff members examine him daily for scrapes or bruises.
“When his feelings are hurt, that’s when you see him cry — when somebody makes fun of him, or an adult talks bad about him,” Smith said.
The staff at the school has helped them through a lot, she said.
“They would sit with him when I was on a job interview, even if I was going to be late,” Smith said.
“I don’t know why they went the extra mile for us, but they did. ... Ellijah doesn’t see them as a school. He sees them as a family.”
Rachel said change affects children like Ellijah more because of their disabilities. “There are so many things they don’t have control over or can’t control — but a consistent schedule, that’s the one thing they can rely on and look forward to,” she said. “A change in routine, even a new building, is really hard for them.”
The district is expected to make its final decision on the school closures this week.
For Smith, Wingate Oaks is a 10-minute drive. Bright Horizons Center in Pompano Beach, Ellijah’s proposed new school, is an hour’s drive in rush-hour traffic on local roads because the boy becomesagitated on the interstate. Bright Horizons doesn’t have the same continuity of staff in after-school care, Smith said.
“They don’t realize how much [the closure of Wingate Oaks] is going to affect our kids. I’m terrified that he’s going to regress, after he has made so much progress,” she said. “It’s not just a building. It’s the people in the building. It’s the chemistry. That’s what makes Wingate work.”