This is Nolan, a kindergartner at West Side Christian School.
Nolan picks up on details that most people aren't able to notice. He can sniff the difference between Kelloggs, Meijer, and Aldi brands of pop tarts and will eat only the Aldi ones after sniffing them all. He loves to be around other kids and enjoys watching other kids play.
He’s calm and affectionate and loves hugs.
Nolan has autism. He can’t talk much, but he’s smart. According to his parents Tim & Laura, when he was 2 Nolan was spelling words! He also loves Curious George. Tim & Laura note that “every autistic brain has a fixation and his have included letters and numbers. One of his current fixations is Curious George.”
Nolan was in school for 3 years before coming to WSCS, beginning with in-home speech therapy at age 2 and specialized preschool through Grand Rapids Public School (GRPS) from ages 3-5.
Nolan has a twin sister, Kathryn. “Our ultimate goal with our twins was having them in the same school setting, but we weren’t sure we would ever have that,” said Laura. “There was push from GRPS to go to a self-contained autistic classroom, for his best interest. And we couldn’t do it. It may be easier for him there initially -- but the world won’t be easier for him someday. He has to learn to adapt to OUR world.”
Additionally, Tim pointed out that out of all of the lessons and learning available, “the only life lesson worth making sure they get is that of the infinite love of Christ. I don’t think we know how to do that alone. What’s really important to us is the body of Christ (Christian community).”
After extensive discussions with the staff at WSCS, Tim and Laura enrolled Nolan in kindergarten at WSCS and then met with the entire teaching staff.
“We wanted to clarify for people on the academic level that our son is nonverbal. He will never show what you want in a traditional setting. In Nolan’s world you won’t be able to assess learning traditionally. What we can assess is on the social and spiritual level. We can assess whether he’s learning the motions of folding hands and sitting still, or whether he’s dancing to the music or not. There’s ways to assess those things and that’s our goals for his learning.” Tim and Laura are both educators and quite familiar with the classroom setting.
“We’re seeing church and school and home connecting,” says Tim. “It’s very real to us. It’s not just the traditional ‘3-legged school-church-home’ mentality. School is so, so important for Nolan. He’s hearing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ sung in all 3 settings. Big crowds are safe now because these people are your friends and family. Can you imagine if we had chosen not to do this?”
The autism brain can take on many senses at a higher level, but according to Tim, “the autism brain isn't able to filter all of the senses coming in to determine the most important ones for the moment (processing struggles). Nolan will turn so he doesn’t have to see something or he’ll cover his ears to try and block out a certain stimulus. He has a hard time maintaining eye contact because it will cause his brain to lose focus on other important senses and details.”
Nolan has exceeded expectations on so many fronts since he started at WSCS.
He’s made more progress academically than had ever been hoped for. “When we saw him counting with cards we were almost in tears because he could name the numbers – that’s a bonus for us,” said Laura.
His growth has been remarkable.
“When we first came to WSCS we told them that Nolan was unlikely to be able to go to chapel, because he doesn’t do well with music and lots of kids.” On the first day of school, Tim & Laura got a video of Nolan sitting front row center in chapel – and dancing. “We said there’s NO WAY that happened – yet the teachers confirm that he loves chapel and worshipping with the kids.”
Related to that, Nolan is now also able to sit through almost an entire church service without covering his ears. He dances to the music. He gets up when people get up, and sits when they do -- which Tim & Laura attribute to Nolan’s experiences with chapel and classroom structure at WSCS.
Additionally, “it’s been so fun when he recognizes songs in church from school. He knew right away when we did Jesus Loves Me. He knew Christmas songs. I love seeing his recognition of these faith moments,” says Laura.
“WSCS has created an environment where the other kids want to be with him too,” says Tim.
The way his classmates and the rest of the students at school have embraced Nolan has been heartwarming. Kids save a swing for him on the playground, and his sister Kathryn reports that his classmates fight over who gets to play with him. Everyone knows his name. “He’s kind of a rock star in his own way,” laughs Laura.
His social skills are improving. He watches other kids and has been picking up on social cues like when to sit and when to stand. Waiting in line is getting easier for him. Typically kids learn these things on their own, but they don’t come naturally to Nolan.
“Sometimes he will sit AT the dinner table with us now,” laughs Tim. When we pray, he will put his hands together. He will say Amen. He will complete the ‘dear Jesus’. That’s the one thing he will take with him beyond this life, that personal relationship with Jesus.”
The benefits extend beyond Nolan’s experiences and growth. Tim noted that “the human tendency is to struggle with understanding someone else’s perspective (empathy gaps). When you put a student with a different ability in the environment, everyone starts to become closer. The empathy gap closes, and everyone grows as a result.”
The kindergarten and 4th grade classroom buddies recently went to Blandford Nature Center. They were all supposed to be really quiet observing something and Nolan started making noises like he’s prone to do. “The 4th graders took note – but the kindergartners didn’t even look at him, because that’s normal for them. They’ve closed the empathy gap. Sometimes he gets a special chair and he gets a break but that’s just how it has to be. He was spending 1.5 hours each day with the Nature Preschoolers at first, which exposed all of those kids to him. This closed their empathy gap and helped him too,” notes Tim.
There’s a 2nd grader that wrote about Nolan being a hero to him. “When we heard about this, we asked for his parents’ names and email. In our book their kid’s a hero. So we sent them a letter that he’s a hero to us. This students’ parents wrote us back and said that their son had been struggling at home so the timing was needed and it was such an encouragement to them as parents."
Nolan is blessed by others at WSCS, and his presence is a blessings to others as well.
“That’s what community in Christ is. Serving each other out of love because Christ is love."