It’s a short walk from J.T. Karaffa Elementary School to Toronto Junior and Senior High School, but it seemed like an insurmountable journey to Parker Williamson. Parker would have to make the trip because he was completing fifth grade and heading into sixth grade.
For many students, the short walk between the two buildings on the same campus in Toronto might be a routine matter, but it wasn’t for Parker. Why? “Because … what I have.”
What Parker “has” is an autism diagnosis. Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the Autism Speaks website. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1 in 59 children in the United States is autistic.
What Parker discovered over last summer was the transition wasn’t very hard at all, thanks to his hard work and the help of therapists from The Village Network.
“I thought it was going to be difficult for me,” Parker said. “I knew the elementary school,” but he didn’t know the layout of the combined junior and high school.
For the past couple years, Parker has been working with Kiersten Cassella. A summer program offered by The Village Network at the school helped Parker and seven other students make successful transitions from one year to the next.
Parker’s parents, Damian and Leah Williamson had some concerns with the transition, too.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Leah said. “He went from one building where he came up missing twice, to one he did not know at all.” He was leaving an environment where he knew all the teachers, and all the teachers knew him. Additionally, he didn’t change classes in elementary school, but he would be changing rooms after nearly every class.
Damian had approached the administration to see if Parker would be able to access his new building a few times over the summer to learn the layout of it and map out where his classes were.
But, Parker was able to gain more access to his new school just about every day over the summer. He participated in the day program with therapists Cassella and Chelsea Adams, and they were joined by Josh Bullard, an intern at The Village Network.
“We went around the school, and I got to know a bit more,” Parker said. He also saw other parts of the building when he attended band over the summer. He plays the trombone.
Parker could not quite pinpoint the time when he felt comfortable in his new surroundings, but for his first day of school in sixth grade, he said it was, “Easy.”
“I thought it would be difficult for me, but it wasn’t,” Parker said as he smiled.
Cassella said Parker appeared to be “super comfortable” around the middle of the summer. Five days a week, for two-and-a-half hours, Parker and the other students worked on readying themselves for the upcoming school year. During group sessions, they talked about psychotherapy, stressors, anxiety, triggers, coping skills, life skills, and socialization strategies. Parker did a really good job working on his socialization skills with the other students, Cassella said. He answered all the questions in group, and he participated in all the activities.
The skills he learned over the summer has helped Parker to better verbalize what he is going through, his father said. Sometimes it can be difficult prying information out of him, but he is doing better.
The summer day program proved to be beneficial, and it will help her son be more self-reliant, Leah said.
Most parents of special needs children are focused on what needs to be done now to help, forgetting one day those children will be adults. But, she is concerned about Parker being self-reliant and a functional adult. “I want him to have a chance of figuring things out on his own,” she said.
“The ultimate goal is for him to be as self-reliant as we can get him,” Damian said.
Parker was one of the first clients Bullard worked with as an intern. “It was amazing to see his transformation from the beginning of the summer to the end of the summer,” he said.
“It was really cool to see Parker transformed in comfort,” Adams said. “I was always surprised by the insights he had about himself. When we created an environment where he could express what was on his mind, it was easy for him to get out what needed to get out. He practiced the socialization skills that he needed to learn.”
Parker’s success can be traced to all the work he put in over the summer, Cassella said, and to an integrative team that includes his parents, school officials and The Village Network staff.
Principal Betsy Jones and intervention specialist Jaclyn Hinerman also had a role, Leah Williamson said.
Jones was hesitant to accept any credit, saying Hinerman has worked a lot with Parker and spends time in class with him.
“When he was over at Karaffa Elementary School, he was nervous about him transitioning over to this building, which has grades six through 12,” Hinerman said. Students gathering in groups could be loud, and at first, Parker sought to avoid those situations. But, with working with Cassella, “It seems like he wants to be with those groups. He will go with those big groups; he doesn’t care.”
Hinerman said she was shocked the first time she saw Parker walking among those big groups of students and not holding his ears to block out the noise. Seeing Parker’s success has been a great experience, and the students enjoy him and invite him in their groups.
“I’ve enjoyed working with TVN and Kiersten.,” Hinerman said. “It’s easy to communicate with her. It’s nice to be able to talk to her and let her know how Parker’s week is going.”
“We’re thrilled they are able to be in the school and with how they are helping us out,” Jones said of The Village Network.
As Parker continues his development, he said he hopes one day to be a video game designer and computer programmer. As for the one who once avoided groups, he has asked his principal if he can start a video design group at school.