When Mellissa Smith looks at her 13-year-old son, Ellijah, she sees a bright, friendly boy who listens intently and tries to please.
But she knows most people don’t see him that way.
Most assume that Ellijah, who is autistic and non-verbal, doesn’t understand them and isn’t very smart, the Oakland Park mom said.
Take the pediatrician who told Smith he was like “a radio without the speakers working” at age 3, or the Pensacola school that assigned him, at age 10, the goals of an 18-month-old – to put the letters of the alphabet in order and to use the restroom by himself.
In 2011, Ellijah started attending Wingate Oaks Center in Fort Lauderdale, a Broward County school for special needs children, and the boy started to thrive. In two months, he was fully potty-trained. He started to use an iPad to communicate. For the first time in his life, he made friends.
But now, Ellijah, who has difficulty adjusting to change, is going to see his little world upheaved. At the end of the year, Wingate Oaks Center will close, part of a consolidation of underenrolled 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 bubbly, smiling toddler who was extremely social. 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 the boy, her pediatrician told her to stop stressing out the child 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. “I wanted to know if he could do more. I read a lot about different ways of learning. They would say they would address that in his IEP [Individualized Education Plan], but it would never happen.”
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.”
When she picks him up from after-care and asks him about his day, Ellijah responds with a series of babbles and body gestures.
“I don’t understand a word my child is saying, but I can tell if he’s excited, so I just go with it,” Smith said.
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 it didn’t last. After two of Ellijah’s tantrums, they were asked to leave. Smith checked into a hotel. A friend from Fort Lauderdale invited her down 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. “But I don’t hold grudges.”
With nowhere else to go, Smith and her son slept in her car, a 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. The Smiths lived there from May to September 2011, while she looked for a job.
Then the family qualified for HOPE South Florida’s transitional housing, called Shepherd’s Way, and moved to an efficiency apartment in Fort Lauderdale. An interior designer from the nonprofit researched calming paint colors for the space, covering the walls in a baby blue and the floor in a sea blue tile, Smith said. Volunteers brought in brand new sheets, towels, pots and pans, even stuffed animals for Ellijah.
“It was unbelievable,” Smith said. “We just had to walk in.”
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 the items they had in storage in Pensacola.
“The staff at Wingate help Ellijah cope with all of the moving,” Smith said. “It’s hard for an average child to go through not having a place to live – think of an autistic child.”
A new school
Ellijah began school at Wingate Oaks when he was 11 in March 2011. He had been in pull-up diapers since he was a baby. 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.
One day, when his mom asked him to switch from watching cartoons on his Netflix app to practicing words on his vocabulary app, Ellijah shook his head “no.”
“Please,” she said.
Instead, Ellijah went to the AAC app, and pressed a button. “I’m sad,” it said.
“Why are you sad?” his mom asked.
Ellijah touched another button.
“She said no,” it said.
Because Ellijah is learning to express himself, he is calmer and 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.”
Because of training at Wingate, Ellijah now feeds and dresses himself, though he has difficulty fastening buttons, because his fingers are weak from lack of use. Ellijah now brings his plate to the kitchen after dinner, and has learned to put his own blue 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, every day at school, Wingate staff members examine him for scrapes or bruises. Smith also routinely checks him at home.
“When his feelings are hurt, that’s when you see him cry – when
READ MORELearn more about plans to close Wingate Oaks and other Broward special-needs schools at MiamiHerald.com/Schools.Watch a video about Mellissa and Ellijah Smith in the Video section under MomsMiami Clips.
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somebody makes fun of him, or an adult talks bad about him,” she said.
Smith said people think because he is nonverbal and autistic, that he is not smart. Not so, she said.
“He understands every conversation and understands expectations. If you expect him to just rock and hum, that’s what he’ll do, or if you expect more, the sky’s the limit,” 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. “They knew we didn’t have a lot of money, and would order pizza or Chinese and say ‘Here, take this food.’
“It was all of these little things. I don’t know why they went the extra mile for us, but they did. And I don’t know what I would have done without them. Ellijah doesn’t see them as a school. He sees them as a family.”
When Smith attended a Broward County School Board meeting Feb. 26 to fight the closing of Wingate, Ellijah stayed silent and listened as teachers, parents and his mom spoke. He was the first to jump to his feet and applaud after Smith’s turn. The next day, he cried “like a wounded animal,” Smith said. “He used his iPad to say, ‘She went away,’ then pointed to a picture of the school.”
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.”
Smith also is worried about how a change in school will affect Ellijah. The school district is expected to make a final decision on the school closures this week.
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 gets extremely agitated on the interstate. And Bright Horizons doesn’t have the same continuity of staff in after care, Smith said.
So she waits. And she worries.
“They don’t realize how much this 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. They can’t just base a decision on numbers and Zip codes.”