Grace is 14, autistic and ‘smarter than anyone knew’

December 14, 2020
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After Grace Falleur arrived for classes at Mitchell High School, she resisted getting out of the car.

Once out, the 14-year-old chanted “bye bye” and skipped away. Rebecca Kohler, Grace’s aide since June, directed her to a room just inside the main office to help prepare her for classes.

She needed a minute — deep breaths and rest, plus a little time for making faces at her reflection in the window — before heading to first period.

As Grace and Kohler crossed the campus, they passed other children with autism, who were picking up a breakfast snack before heading to a self-contained classroom. But Grace, one of more than 60,000 students with disabilities in Tampa Bay public schools, didn’t come to Mitchell for its special needs program.

She was there for Algebra II, art and physics.

Grace has what her therapist describes as unreliable speech, as well as motor skills that she can’t fully control. What she says with her mouth isn’t always what she wants to say, and what her body does often isn’t what she intends it to do.

That doesn’t do justice to what she knows, though, or what she hopes to achieve.

Melissa Musselwhite, director of Pasco County’s student services department, recalled when a team evaluated Grace for placement. The room was filled with people and distractions. Grace swayed and sang about Disney’s cartoon duo Chip and Dale as a math teacher presented a complex problem involving quadratics while others looked on.

Musselwhite herself found it hard to focus. Yet less than a minute after hearing the question, Grace blurted out the correct answer. She had not appeared to be paying attention.

“I have never seen anybody like this before,” Musselwhite said.

So the district enrolled Grace in face-to-face classes at Mitchell High to pursue her academic dreams, which include studying internal medicine at Harvard. It was more than her family expected.

Without the pandemic, it might never have happened.

• • •

Across the nation, schools scrambled in the spring to cope with the contagious and deadly coronavirus. They abruptly stopped in-person instruction for what turned out to be months, leaving families and educators to figure out how kids could keep learning.

Worries quickly spiked that the new approaches, mostly online, could leave thousands of students behind academically — particularly those with special needs.

Those concerns didn’t consume the Falleur family. They saw an open window, not a closed door.

For four years, Grace had attended Invictus Academy, a specialty school for nonverbal students with autism. She had learned how to use a spelling board to communicate, in addition to regular courses.

She points to letters on a board held by a facilitator, who repeats each one and recites finished words but does not guide Grace’s hand. It’s a laborious process, which often requires refocusing Grace as she works to control her arm or, sometimes, to get out of a “loop” that distracts her from completion.

Eventually, Grace hopes to get her motor skills sharpened enough to use a computerized tablet, which could “speak” and help with predictive text.

Still, the spelling board, despite its drawbacks, was a huge step forward.

“She was hungry for communication,” said her mother, Angela Falleur. “I knew there was more in there that wasn’t getting out.”

When the pandemic hit, Invictus went remote. While supporting Grace from home, her parents saw more than ever that she needed greater academic challenges.

They didn’t expect much from the public school system. They had tried it before, when Grace was much younger, with little success.

But Pasco schools announced live remote lessons in all subject areas for the fall semester. It sounded like the right combination of more advanced courses with adequate oversight from home.

“I never expected to send her there,” Falleur said. “I feel like because of COVID, they were a lot more open-minded.”

School officials invited Grace in to determine which classes she should take and whether she might do well in person, too.

“That for us was just icing on the cake, that they were willing to have her in class and on campus,” Falleur said.

Grace, with spelling board assistance from her mom, said, “I think they were willing to take a risk because of my teachers in Invictus in the meetings telling them I was smart.”

The purpose of those meetings had been to demonstrate her abilities to educators, and prove that her words and knowledge were her own. The spelling board method is controversial, with many researchers calling it an unproven technique.

Musselwhite said Grace would have been welcome at any time; the pandemic wasn’t a factor.

Still, she said she was pleased the family saw a special opportunity and jumped at it.

“We problem-solve a handful of unique kids every single year,” Musselwhite said. “People don’t see that on a regular basis, but we do that.”

Initially, Musselwhite said, she envisioned Grace on campus all day. But controlling her motor functions and spelling while also learning is intense and tiring, and “we needed to find a balance.”

They settled on three periods in person, and three online.

Mitchell principal Jessica Schultz made sure that every teacher who would have Grace in a class met her and understood the challenge in advance. She also attended the early evaluations, which the family insisted upon to make sure everyone knew the spelling method wasn’t a trick or hoax.

“Grace is fascinating,” Schultz said one October morning. “She is very intelligent, very capable.”

That’s not always immediately evident.

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