High school

The Stuff Of High School Legends

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BRICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — A high school student with autism becomes a hero on the football field. Sounds like a good movie doesn’t it? Well, it’s a true story.

Anthony Starego

The score was tied with just 21 seconds left on the clock Friday night. Out trotted Brick High School’s Anthony Starego, an 18-year-old kicker who’s used to facing adversity.

Starego was orphaned at the age of 3 and then grew up with a long list of developmental issues. So when he jogged out on the field to attempt a game-winning field goal against favored Toms River North, one couldn’t blame him if he didn’t feel overwhelmed by the moment.

What happened next was something usually reserved for Hollywood. He split the uprights and the place went crazy. But there was nothing ordinary about that kick. It was a lifetime in the making, CBS 2′s Otis Livingston reported Tuesday.

“As soon as the officials went like this, I was a blubbering idiot,” father Ray Starego said, demonstrating the hand movement for a successful field goal.

“I was just crying, but I wasn’t going to stop watching him because he was just jumping for joy. It really was unbelievable,” added Reylene Starego, Anthony’s mother.

If being the hero Friday night put Starego at the top of the mountain, his entire life has been an uphill battle getting there.

“When he came to us, he had been through 11 foster homes and he had had some difficulties. He had about six words to his vocabulary,” Reylene Starego said.

“He had kidney reflux; he had an asthmatic condition. Basically, it was a special needs adoption that we had gone through,” Ray Starego added.

Anthony Starego

Symptoms of autism include children performing repeated body movements. They often experience unusual distress when routines are changed, but those are the same traits that make Anthony a successful kicker.

“Fifty times a day, that’s all he does. Just three steps back, one over and he hits the ball. That’s what he knows and that’s what he did,” coach Kurt Weiboldt said.

Anthony Starego agreed. As far as he’s concerned, practice makes perfect.

“I do the same thing over and over again. It helps me a lot, and I’m having the best day of my life,” he said.

Children with autism also have trouble with social interactions, so making friends isn’t easy, but the football field is different. It’s a safehaven.

“[Anthony is] just the man. He’s always happy, always puts a smile on your face,” Brick High quarterback Brendan Darcy said.

Anthony said he doesn’t think of himself as being different than his teammates. He said he just has a job to do.

“I feel like I’m happy and calm and enjoying myself when I kick. [It’s] the time of my life,” he said.

The Green Dragons’ only two wins of the season have come since Anthony became the kicker. He’s perfect on kicks, including that game winner. Their next game is this Friday against Lacey High School.



Graduating High School: A Milestone for Students, Parents and Educators on the Spectrum

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P.S. 176X principal Rima Ritholtz and senior Vicki Martinez celebrate graduation.

P.S. 176X principal Rima Ritholtz and senior Vicki Martinez celebrate graduation.

From P.S. 176X, Kids With Autism Get Joyful Launch

NEW YORK (CNN) — All parents have hopes and dreams for their children. Parents of kids with serious disabilities are no different. But in their moments of wildest imagination, the parents of Vicki Martinez, Chase Ferguson and Travis Cardona could not have envisioned high school graduation — certainly not in the dark days when they first learned their children had autism.

Embedded video from CNN Video

But last month, in a spacious high school auditorium in the Bronx, New York, Vicki, Chase and Travis marched down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance,” resplendent in their caps and gowns, along with 15 classmates at P.S. 176X, a New York City public school with 560 students ranging in age from 3 to 21, all of whom have autism.

“When I came here, I couldn’t talk. I talked gibberish,” the now-voluble Vicki recalls. “I didn’t do my class work; I’d go like this,” and she proceeds to flap her hands — a common symptom of autism known as stereotypy or, self-stimulation.

On graduation day, Vicki beamed from the high school stage as she collected three awards along with a special education diploma, and wowed the hundreds in the audience by singing “Besame Mucho” with the school’s Latin band.

P.S. 176X is the largest school for children with autism in New York City and very likely the largest in the country, if not the world. Because it is so big, explains principal Rima Ritholtz, it can offer an extraordinary range of services: chorus, band, arts, life skills and cooking classes, vocational training at school and in the community, as well as a wide range of academic programs aligned to the wide-ranging abilities and disabilities of the students.

The school operates within five school buildings: three elementary schools, a middle school and high school. P.S. 176X students have full-spectrum autism, not milder forms. About 10 percent of the students attend regular classes at those schools, with an aide to help them, but 90 percent are in special classes, with student-teacher ratios as small as 1-to-1 and as large as eight students with two aides and one teacher.

Nationally, there is much debate over how best to educate the nation’s rapidly growing and diverse population of youngsters with autism, the prevalence of which has increased tenfold over the past 25 years. The quality of services offered by public schools varies enormously from place to place. Some parents relocate to school districts that offer good autism services. Some persuade or even sue their district to pay for private school placement, which can cost $70,000 a year or more. Video

Video: see Vicki sing and other highlights from the graduation ceremony »

The right to seek private school placement for kids with disabilities was strengthened in June by a Supreme Court ruling in a closely watched case from Oregon. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children with autism and other disabilities are guaranteed the right to a “a free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.”

“People have preconceived notions about public school; they think private is better,” says Ritholtz, who’s wrapping up her 12th year as principal of P.S. 176X and is, herself, the daughter of a special education principal. But Ritholtz would happily match her program with almost any of the high-priced private schools. “I say, let me see their chorus,” she jokes. While the school cannot necessarily serve children who have multiple handicaps in addition to autism, she allows, “We will walk a mile before we say we can’t accommodate a kid.”

The school offers a mix of educational approaches. Some classrooms follow a fairly strict applied behavioral analysis methodology, which tends to put a strong emphasis on one-on-one instruction, using rewards and punishments to spur learning and measuring incremental progress. Other classes use a variety of methods.

The school will weigh parental preferences along with what they feel will work best for the child. “Half the battle is winning the trust of the parents,” says Ritholtz. “We understand they are up against a very baffling disability.”

While the school does a lot of testing and evaluation, the staff never seems to lose sight of larger questions about the quality of life for its students. Says Ritholtz, “My father told me not everything that is important can be measured, and not everything you can measure is important.”

After watching her son Chase graduate, Teresa Ferguson ticked off the many things he learned at P.S. 176X. “They taught him so many things I never thought would be possible,” she says. “He learned how to make friends, joke, socialize. He learned how to sit still in the classroom. He learned how to read, write, sing, play a musical instrument, stand on a stage and say a speech. These are things I never knew would be possible when he was a toddler.”

Planning for graduation and the transition out of school begins when a student is 14, seven years before he or she must, by law, leave the public school system. Terri Giampapa, the transition coordinator and job developer, works closely with families to help them find job placements, adult day programs, sports and recreational activities that will suit the graduate. As part of that preparation, students visit work sites, spend time learning vocational skills and get used to being in larger groups. Some learn to travel and navigate public transportation.

Surprisingly, it can be harder to place the more capable graduates who seek job opportunities than those who are more severely disabled and directed to adult “day hab” programs. “Employment is extremely challenging,” says Giampapa, and it’s been made even harder by the recession. Only two of this year’s 18 graduates — Vicki and Chase — appear to be headed for work. They plan to go to “supported employment” situations, meaning that they will be closely trained and supervised.

Often such jobs are just 20 hours a week, so the school helps families plan ways to flesh out the week. For those who swim, there may be weekly visits to the YMCA or, in the case of one graduate, weekly appointments at a nail salon for a manicure and a dose of salon community. The goal is to construct a full and satisfying life, explains Rosemary Petrovich, a former assistant principal who still works at the school a few day a week: “Where are the places to go, people to see, things to do?”

The family of 176X graduate Travis Cardona couldn’t be more pleased with his post-graduation plans. Travis, who can read and write but doesn’t speak and relies on an electronic communicator, is headed for a day hab program called Quality Services for Autistic Citizens. “They had no space, and then they made space for him,” says Travis’ aunt and guardian, Ivette Ithier.

Ithier says she wept with joy watching her nephew graduate. “It was unbelievable. A big accomplishment.”

From Special Education to Higher Education

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It is Graduation season, and to the many graduates out there, and especially their parents: congratulations on what is surely to be the first of many successes.  I wanted to share this video, from a graduation in 2010; it speaks of the indomitable spirits of the student and his parents, and the limitless possibilities of families on the Spectrum.  Enjoy! -Ed

Does Technology Make Us ‘More Autistic’?

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I have wondered this for a while, and want to pose this question to families on the Spectrum: do any of your other (neurotypical) children display some autistic-like, or Asperger-like behavior? With the onset of the Internet, mobile devices, texting and social media, it seems that this generation’s teens, tweens and to a lesser extent, children have less, and crave less face-to-face interaction with their peers.  Some will, in fact, go out of their way to avoid personal interaction. 

Like most parents, we grew up with friends that we went to school with; we played both sports and games with them, and generally hung together as we made our way through middle school/junior high school, high school and beyond.  We shared interests and made interpersonal bonds because we knew no other way. 

The advent of technology has given our children the ability to communicated with someone thousands of miles away but in doing so, it robbed them of their social skills: speaking and writing to one another.  One of my teenaged son’s handwriting resembles that of a grade schooler, often printing rather than writing in script; even when prompted to write in script, the letters often resemble the capital letter/lower case letter alphabet banners that hung on top of classroom blackboards.  Now, this isn’t entirely of his own choosing; he happened to be in school as they too embraced technology, and began requiring work to be typed or printed.  Reading his handwritten prose reminds me of reading the words my autistic son worked on so hard to produce, often with hand-over-hand guidance to form individual letters, words, and eventually sentences. 

This post is really about how this generation’s adults-in-waiting have shied away from social interactions.  They know all their friends email addresses and Facebook statuses, and even have their cellphone numbers, if only to send text messages to each other.  A common conversation in my house goes like this:

     Me: Did you call Jeffrey to hang out?

     Son: He didn’t answer me.  I texted him an hour ago. 

     Me: Why didn’t you call his house? Maybe he doesn’t have his phone with him.

     Son: (no answer; tries texting again)

     Me: (walks away, shaking my head in disbelief)

Our children are well-versed in texting, and mastered that skill years before I did, even before we had QWERTY keyboards or touchscreens on our phones.  They seem content to ‘reach out and touch someone’ electronically, but balk at the notion of actually conversing.  Anecdotally, it seems that my sons are more apt to send text messages, or email someone, as compared to their female cousins or peers, who seem to take to video chat apps like Oovoo or Skype, much more readily.   

Yesterday we went out to a local restaurant to eat because the High School Music Dept. made an arrangement with the restaurant to donate 10% of each bill that was accompanied by a special flyer.  Good food, good cause, and the place should be filled with many friends and acquaintances.  After dining, we urged our sons to go say hello to their friends who were in the adjacent area/within viewing distance. 

“No.”  “I don’t want to.”  “I don’t have anything to say.”  were the responses we got from them, even after significant prodding and cajoling. 

Despite their (relative) social disinclination, they are capable of, if not accomplished at, expressing themselves, either through music or sports, with their peers; a manifestation of hours/days/weeks/years’ worth of repetitive movement that they convey to each other.  Even participation in a team sport or musical group can be broken down into how each individual child performed.   Someone could argue that savant-like behavior is also exhibited within the Spectrum. 

There have been many blog posts and articles similar to this one, positing that in some sense we are all ‘a little bit Autistic.” Maybe it’s because I’m hypersensitive to Autism issues.  Maybe it’s because I have three boys and Autism has a preponderance for affecting males.  Perhaps they are this generation’s nerds, who will go on to become the next Bill Gates or Sheldon Cooper

Perhaps they’re just average teenagers trying to make their way, just like we did decades ago.  Hopefully years from now, they will look at their children/our grandchildren and remark “back in my day…”

Does technology promote Autistic behavior? I’m not sold; it certainly can exaggerate some classic manifestations of Autism or Asperger’s.  Certain too is that technology will help the children on the Spectrum, and that we can’t go back in time; my autistic son can now spontaneously share his artwork with his grandmother via his iPad.   A small step in socialization but a step in the right direction nevertheless.  Technology is, and always will be the magnifying glass for our society: revealing things not previously seen, including ways to improve ourselves and our children.