By Alana Melanson
FITCHBURG — A boy’s name in the center of a heart.
To most, such a drawing is merely normal child’s play, something that occurs naturally as kids grow and learn to relate to one another.
To Sheela Tallamraju, this heart signifies so much more, because the name in that heart belongs to her son, Amit.
A first-grader at South Street Elementary School, Amit, 7, has classic Kanner’s autism. He is unable to communicate verbally with his peers. He seeks sensory stimulation and often needs something to occupy his hands, as they are prone to flap.
And his typical classmates barely notice the differences.
They also don’t point them out or make fun of him.
They don’t stare when he fidgets restlessly, or when he gets up and walks to the window when he needs a break. They don’t feel uncomfortable when he doesn’t respond to what they say to him, nor do they become discouraged and exclude him. They continue to talk to him, take turns walking with him and sitting with him at lunch, and run with him during recess.
“When you do something like that, it tells you how much you care for that person,” Tallamraju said of the heart drawn by Amit’s classmate.
Until he was about 18 months old, Amit was a normal child, Tallamraju said. He was able to communicate through normal speech, and developed at a normal rate, though faster than some other children the same age in their neighborhood, she said.
The change in her son was almost overnight, Tallamraju said. Over the course of about three weeks, Amit stopped communicating verbally, stopped participating in behaviors that had been typical of him, developed allergies and began sinking into autism — and no one can figure out why.
There are many theories as to what causes autism — genetics, environmental factors, vaccines, the list goes on — but none have been proven.
Tallamraju and her husband have another child, Siddharth, 8, who seemed to move in the opposite direction as Amit. While Siddharth was highly nonverbal at 18 months, she said, by kindergarten he seemed to have emerged from it.
“It’s what we were hoping for Amit as well, but his autism ended up being more severe,” Tallamraju said.
Amit stayed in Fitchburg for preschool, and was placed in a substantially separate school in Natick.
But Tallamraju wanted more for her son. In her research, she found a Connecticut school that has been immersing autistic students with their typical peers, with results similar to the ones now being experienced at South Street Elementary School.
Tallamraju contacted several Massachusetts school districts in search of one that had an integration program in place or would be willing to start one. Many said they felt Amit was not ready for immersion and would spend his days in a substantially separate classroom.
“Ready means never,” she said, echoing the words of Connecticut autism consultant Linda Rammler.
Fitchburg, however, was willing to take the step.
Since the beginning of the current school year, Amit has spent increasingly more time interacting with his typical peers. He comes directly to teacher Dawn Piccolomini’s classroom in the morning, hangs up his coat with all of the other students and participates in the daily morning greeting session. He not only goes to art and gym, but stays with his classmates for writing and other lessons. Amit still spends part of his day learning one-on-one through discrete trials, which breaks down tasks he must learn into smaller steps.
“This is the first time that we’ve done something like this,” Piccolomini said last week. “We’re trying this new model where you expose them to as much as you can, even if you’re not quite sure how much of it they’re observing, in the hope that at some point, which has happened in other situations, they are able to communicate in some way and tell you how much they’ve absorbed and learned.”
“The whole mystery behind autism is we don’t really know how much he is absorbing and understanding because he can’t tell us that yet,” she added, noting that there have been some instances in which technology has allowed autistic students to communicate via type or touch in place of doing so verbally.
Paraprofessional Maura Chellis gave the example of a preschooler who uses an iPad to communicate.
“It’s amazing how he can answer questions in complete sentence form at the age of 4, and some kids can’t even do that verbally, and he can do it with his iPad,” she said.
While Amit is exposed to the same subject matter as his peers and learns appropriate behavior from his classmates, they are also learning from him as well, said Principal Monica Poitras.
“Our general education students become aware of students who have a disability, and have a respect for them,” Poitras said. “They learn compassion at a very young age and they learn tolerance. I’ve seen it with other children — they see people in wheelchairs, and are standoffish, but it’s usually just because don’t understand, and I hope that we’re developing that it’s OK, they’re just not like you and I, but they’re regular people like all of us.”
“If they’ve been able to interact with a child who has a disability, then they are going to be more accepting of those children wherever they go in society in general, and those numbers are increasing and we want to develop that understanding and tolerance for people who are different from us,” Piccolomini said.
Chellis said these children can also serve as role models for their peers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today, one in every 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder–indicating a 78 percent increase since 2002 and a tenfold increase over the last 40 years. Boys are almost five times as likely as girls to have such a disorder.
Piccolomini said the children in her class were willing to give up some of their recess time recently to see where Amit spends the rest of his day when he’s not with them, and they were fascinated by the occupational therapy room with all of the trampolines, swings and yoga balls — all things that help him to deal with the sensory stimulation he needs.
“It really meant a lot to me that his peers accepted him for who he is and that he truly belongs in the classroom, and to be part of it and not be looked at because he’s different is huge to us,” Tallamraju said.
Tallamraju appreciated the efforts of Piccolomini and Poitras so much that she put their names in for citations from Gov. Deval Patrick, which were presented to them at the Fitchburg School Committee meeting last Monday.