When Mikey, who was born in 2005 with Fragile X syndrome, entered public preschool, everyone quickly realized it was not the right fit. He was non-verbal, aggressive, and engaging in high rates of self-injury.
Kelley and her husband, Mikey's parents, recognized they needed help. After an exhaustive search, they found May Institute. Mikey, then four years old, became a student at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. Within weeks of enrolling Mikey, the couple felt as though they had struck gold.
“The staff didn’t avoid Mikey’s challenging behaviors. They addressed them directly. The teachers taught him how to get his needs and wants met using appropriate behavior,” says Kelley.
“Without this school and the progress Mikey has made there, I just don’t know what his life would be like, what our life would be like. His challenging behaviors were eliminated at school with lots of hard work and lots of love, and they stay near zero because of a consistent commitment from the greatest behavior analysts, teachers, and instructors that I can imagine.”
May Institute is proud of our “Champions of Care,” the educational and clinical teams that combine their knowledge and experience to serve the individuals in our care with respect, kindness, and compassion.
When Rick Bonfiglio was a college freshman, his parents told him he had to find a job. So he went to a job fair, and recalls, “I convinced a woman to give me a paid internship.” That was 17 years ago. The woman at the job fair was from May Institute. And Rick is now a lead classroom instructor at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass.
Asked to describe one of his students, Rick beams. “Hannah is very funny, very energetic. She loves music and to laugh and dance to electronic dance music. She sings a lot, just a super bubbly, happy 6-year-old kid. Sometimes she’ll burst into the room in the morning and say hi to everybody. Hannah really engages with our staff. She’s quite a pleasure to have in the classroom. And she loves graham crackers.” Rick lights up as he talks about Hannah.
“As a parent, that brings tears to my eyes!” quietly exclaims Hannah’s mother, Sarah. “Because what you want — especially when you have a child with special needs — is for other people to care for her and want her to succeed as much as you do. And that is our sense, even after only a few months at the May. They seem like such a compassionate, caring group of people.
“You know, it’s not easy to leave your child with essentially complete strangers for six hours a day. Hannah has very limited verbal abilities, so she can’t really tell me what happened over the course of the day… that requires a lot of trust from our end. And I can tell you that we have been able to give that trust pretty easily just based on the people we’ve met at the May.
“Hannah has struggled with communication her entire life. As parents, we’ve worked really hard to try to figure out the best ways to support her learning and to teach her. We tried many different things over the years. It wasn’t until she started at the May School that we’ve really felt comfortable with what Hannah is being provided: a concentrated, intensive therapeutic environment over many hours each day. She has really responded to that.
“Hannah has made huge gains in some areas of communication and self-help. For example, when she went to preschool at our public school last year, she refused to wear her shoes. And she doesn’t wear socks either. So she literally went barefoot the entire year — which was not good.
“When she started at the May she was taking her shoes off more than 100 times a day! Which means that some poor teacher had to put both of her shoes back on over 100 times in the course of a day — only to have her kick them right off again. And now?
“Hannah wears her shoes at school — all day long. She wears her shoes when we go grocery shopping. She wears her shoes pretty much everywhere. And now she even wants to wear them at home!
“She’s also begun communicating a lot differently. Before, we’d hear a word, or an approximation of a word, every now and then. But it wasn’t consistent. Now she opens her mouth and something’s coming out every time she wants something. Which is fantastic — and, we hope, the building blocks of language.
“There’s so much about Hannah that we love! She was in a hurry and arrived three months prematurely. She weighed two pounds and had to fight for her first two-and-a-half months in the hospital. But against all the odds, she has really done quite well and has grown into a wonderful little girl.
“We’ve realized that optimism is the only way to approach things when you’re raising a child.”
Autism is not just one disability, but a full spectrum of disorders. It is big. It can be overwhelming. And so, the first time we meet someone with autism, it suddenly becomes personal. We don’t meet the disease — we meet the person.
Fifteen years ago, I had never met a person with autism. It was more rare then (affecting one in every 500 children) and less understood. Public discussion of autism most often had to do with the movie Rain Man and “autistic savants.” People just didn’t know what autism was or what it meant — myself included.
And then I met Nick.
Never lose HOPE.
As a college senior, I took a paid internship helping a family with their little boy. Nick wasn’t quite four years old, and he had recently been diagnosed with autism. He could only say a few words. Nick rarely connected with others. He had a limited ability to read body language, gestures, or facial expressions.
There were days when I was afraid of Nick’s behaviors — his tantrums and yelling never seemed to end. There were also times, driving home from my internship, when I would think, I just lived through the longest six hours of my life.
I kept returning, though — if only for those very few moments when I felt I was really starting to connect with him.
Nick’s parents had been searching for a special school where Nick could receive the treatment they knew he needed. They wanted him to learn basic skills, to connect with people, and to interact more with the world around him.
They wanted what every parent wants for his or her child: for them to be happy. I remember how excited they were when Nick was accepted into one of May Institute’s schools for children with autism.
At his Mom’s request — and more than a little reluctantly — I joined the school as an intern. I was hesitant because I felt I hadn’t been very successful in helping Nick. I wasn’t seeing him make progress. I didn’t believe he could get better. I was worried it would be too hard to watch him fail. But, I didn’t have the heart to say no to his Mom. So, I went.
Care, love… and evidence-based treatment.
I will never forget my first day at May Institute. All morning, I observed Nick. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! He was listening, talking to his teachers, and doing things I had never seen him do. It was breathtaking! He was a different boy.
I asked the May staff, ‘How are you doing this?’ That’s when my own education began in “effective autism treatment” and “applied behavior analysis.”
Over time, I would learn how to help our kids learn, manage their negative behaviors, and develop their potential for success and fulfillment. Most important, I fell in love with the work, the field, and the students. Soon after graduating from college, I joined the staff and never looked back.
Believe in making a difference.
Today, I direct that school where I was an intern. I have had the great joy of watching Nick learn enough at my school to eventually leave, and attend his local public school.
He’s a young man now, social, and doing great. He and his family still face challenges related to autism. But Nick has come so far from that little boy I first met years ago, who was so secluded from the world.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that one in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. It is almost five times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.
These numbers are startling, but Nick made me a believer. I know that with the right treatment, hard work, love, and patience, our children can — and do — have bright futures.”
— Erica Kearney, Executive Director,
May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities,
West Springfield, Mass.