Mission Valley Elementary School student seeing gains inside, outside of classroom
The sand slips slowly through Carter Willard’s fingers. He is delighted by the feel.
Children around him on the playground may be swinging or climbing up stairs to a slide. Not Carter.
The fourth-grade Mission Valley Elementary School student is completely happy playing in the sand – picking it up and letting it slide through his hands over and over.
“Why is it so wrong to be different?” asks Veronica “Ronie” Willard, Carter’s mom.
Carter, now 10, was officially diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. But his mom knew something was different about Carter well before then.
“He wasn’t speaking,” she said. “There were no goo-goo noises. He wasn’t playing like a typical toddler.”
Willard and her husband, Charlie Willard, lived in Maple Hill when Carter was born.
At first, the couple thought their son had a hearing problem, so they sought out a new pediatrician. They spoke with Pottawatomie/Wabaunsee Infant Toddler Services, an organization that was offering them services. Eventually, staff at the University of Kansas Medical Center diagnosed Carter with autism. The next day, staff from Pottawatomie/Wabaunsee Infant Toddler Services brought a book about autism to the family, thinking that may be Carter’s diagnosis.
“It was so overwhelming,” Ronie Willard said. “But county services helped out with everything. I grieved. I wasn’t grieving for myself. For me, my instant reaction was it was going to be hard for Carter. You grieve, but you keep moving.”
Shortly before Carter turned 3, the family moved from Maple Hill to Eskridge so that Carter could access services at Mission Valley Unified School District 330.
“Even though we are 40 minutes from a shoe store, it was the best thing for Carter,” Ronie Willard said. “He has a whole community looking out for him. His classmates welcome him. That is great.”
Today, Carter is blossoming, his mother and special education teacher said. He uses a communication application – called Proloquo2go – on an iPad to communicate because he is nonverbal. Proloquo2go helps him talk and share his feelings with his family members, peers and teachers.
“He has gained so much independence in the last year,” Ronie Willard said.
Paige Meek, a special education teacher at Mission Valley USD 330, has worked with Carter for five years.
“I have seen some huge gains,” she said. “His learning has flourished. He is a very fun and loving kid. He has the best smile.”
Carter can sit still and complete independent tasks and is using his communication device more and more, Meek said.
Carter becoming more independent has been a goal, Ronie Willard said. Recently, he learned to get his own cereal bowl at home.
“That may not seem big, but in our house, it’s huge,” she said. “He’s learning life skills.”
Carter enjoys riding bikes, jumping on his trampoline, hanging out with his two pygmy goats and dog, playing in the water and sand and spending time with his family.
Ronie Willard gains strength from her family members, those in her community and also online support groups. She has developed many “relationships” from those support groups.
Willard doesn’t want others to be afraid to help out parents if they see them struggling.
“People are sometimes afraid to help because we fear the unknown, but it’s always nice just to have someone help out,” she said. “Don’t think you have to do it all by yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
At home, Ronie Willard often forgets her son is autistic. But when they are out in public, she notices how other children act. For example, when Carter is entertaining himself with sand, his mom sees other students playing all around him.
“We encourage Carter to play,” Ronie Willard said. “But I have to realize that he enjoys that sand. With autism, you have a lot of tough moments. You don’t know how hard things are until you’re at a Christmas concert and every child is singing except yours. But there are good moments, too. You have to celebrate those. They aren’t little moments – they are huge. Sometimes, we tend to underestimate our kids. Life is an up and down roller coaster. Every mom and kiddo’s situation is different. Everyone has their thing – we just need to accept everyone’s thing and embrace it.”
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