Defying The Odds

Despite autism, elementary student participates in schoolwide spelling bee


Julia Randall Elementary students watch as classmates take turns participating in the schoolwide spelling bee.

Julia Randall Elementary students watch as classmates take turns participating in the schoolwide spelling bee. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Fifth-grade student Michael Reardon’s family covered him with ecstatic hugs and smiles as he came off the stage from the Julia Randall Elementary (JRE) spelling bee.

They never thought they would see this day.

“When your child is diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, you doubt you will ever see him do something like this,” said Michael’s father, Michael Sr. “I thought he would be overwhelmed.”

“I’m just so happy,” said his mother Carolyn, beaming.

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Michael Reardon

Besides his parents swelling with pride, the teachers at JRE also delighted in seeing Michael participate in the spelling bee.

“He has improved so much,” said Jake Swartwood, who has watched Michael’s progression over the years. That progress culminated in his participation in the all-school spelling bee.

“He is the first student from the autism program to participate,” said Kim Wholly, head of the program at JRE. “We haven’t really had students show an interest in previous years, so this was exciting.”

Michael had to qualify for the bee by competing with his classmates. His teachers and parents said he is one of the best in his class.

“He was the top two in his class,” said his father. “He can spell the biggest words.”

“He is a naturally good speller and is at grade level,” said Wholly. “Michael’s participation was somewhat unexpected. When he told us he wanted to take part in the schoolwide spelling bee, we ran with it.”

Wholly said spelling is a strength for Michael, which surprises the teaching staff since most autistic children have a challenge communicating with words rather than actions.

For many families, an autism diagnosis invokes fear and hopelessness.

An autistic person generally has trouble with empathy, explains the organization Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org).

Generally, smiles or frowns have no meaning to a person with autism. Moreover, those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often express themselves through physical actions rather than the spoken word.

For example, when someone says, “Come here,” to a person with autism, the meaning does not change whether the phrase is spoken with a smile and arms wide open for a hug or with a frown and hands on hips, according to Autism Speaks.

By the time the average person reaches 5 years old, they understand others have different thoughts and feelings from them, but people diagnosed with ASD do not recognize others are separate from them.

This creates confusion, difficulty communicating and repetitive physical actions. Autistic people find it frustrating that others around them do not feel the same way they do or need and want the things at the same time they do.

As a result, for many, the spoken word seems irrelevant, said Autism Speaks.

Wholly agrees with the advocacy organization.

“Kids with autism have a tendency to exhibit aggressive and destructive behaviors frequently due to lack of expressive verbal communication, which increases the level of frustration,” she said.

What amazed Michael’s family and teachers is that he overcame these challenges to participate in a verbal communication competition in front of the JRE student body.

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Michael Reardon writes his word on a sheet of paper.

“We credit Michael’s growth to a multitude of reasons ... the most significant being Michael,” said Wholly. “Through maturity, consistency, teaching and guidance, Michael continues to learn appropriate techniques to use when faced with uncomfortable or frustrating situations. He has become an outstanding student with the help and encouragement of his past and present teachers.”

During the spelling bee, Michael showed more restraint and control than many of his peers.

As an accommodation, the school allowed Michael to use a pencil and paper to spell words, instead of using the microphone to spell out loud.

He prepared for the bee by taking home a list of words to practice, said Wholly.

When Michael was called to spell his first word, “Martian,” he calmly walked to the judge’s table with his teacher’s aide, Sherrie, picked up the pencil and put it to paper to write out his guess.

Unfortunately, he did not spell the word correctly. As he walked back to his seat, the judges had to ring the bell, signifying his misspelling and the end of his participation in the bee.

But that did not matter to Michael, his family or teachers.

All that mattered was that he went for it.

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