Thomas finds his voice

POULSBO — Thomas Mosser, 8, sits quietly at the front of his Poulsbo Elementary class.

One of three narrators, he waits patiently as the characters of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” act out scenes in teacher Joyce Brown’s class. Thomas intervenes periodically, looking up at the crowd and delivering his lines proudly.

“You see, under the bridge there lived a mean and ugly troll. He would never let anyone cross over his bridge,” he said.

Thomas’ parents, Katie and Thomas “Fish” Mosser, watch their son’s performance with the the other parents, students and staff in attendance.

The Mossers know that Thomas’ performance in the play is nothing short of a miracle.

When he was 3 1/2 years old, Thomas was diagnosed with autism. The neurological disorder was greatly affecting his ability to communicate — Thomas was able only to speak in one-word sentences. His parents tried to get through to him verbally, his face would be stoic, with no trace of confusion. It was as if he was detached from the world, his parents said.

“All of the sudden he was in a bubble,” Fish Mosser said. “It was just himself, tucked away.”

Thomas’ lack of communication skills — one of autism’s “core deficits” or manifestations of the widely-varying disorder — kept him locked inside a world of his own. If he couldn’t communicate, how could he ever function in society? How could he even go outside, his parents wondered.

“I thought we’d lost him,” Fish Mosser said. “I figured he’d be institutionalized or he’d never be able to leave the house.” Going to pre-school seemed out of the question for Thomas. But a new program at Wolfle Elementary, organized by NKSD teacher Nancy Pack and based on the latest research out of the University of Washington, was geared specifically for autistic children.

“We had total fear when he started school,” Katie Mosser said. “But when this program began, it was like a godsend.”

Mosser said she remembers the day she asked Pack if Thomas would eventually be institutionalized.

“That’s not going to happen,” Pack replied.

Education for students with

autism has come a long way

Children with any sort of developmental disability, including autism, have been largely segregated from the mainstream classroom throughout history. Public education in America — from about 1850 to the 100 years that followed — saw special needs students committed to “the back wards of large state institutions,” according to “Inclusion,” a book by Susan and William Stainback. New theories in genetic research only furthered the exclusion; by the 20th century, special needs students were perceived as having “criminal tendencies” and posed a threat to society due to their “inherited qualities.”

But all that began to change with the Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education 50 years ago. Separate is not equal, the justices concluded. The impact of that ruling didn’t only affect the racial division in public schools — it eventually rippled outward to include special needs.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was passed. It was enacted three years later. Reorganized in 1990 and dubbed the Individuals with the Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA), the law decreed that public education include every child, regardless of disability, in “the least restrictive environment possible.”

“It’s the idea that we are an inclusive society,” said North Kitsap School District Director of Special Education Dorothy Siskin. “That everybody has strengths and everybody has differences. It’s more realistic for a child to be in a classroom where they see more of a range of behaviors and personalities.”

Pack’s pre-school is on the forefront of new methods for the treatment of autism in the classroom. Her program has taken the IDEA Act a step further, including students with autism in the classroom as much as possible.

Unlocking Thomas’ hidden talents

Without communication skills, Thomas Mosser could not benefit from being in a “general education” setting and neither would his peers. But Pack and a talented team of paraeductors have found ways to reach him — and teach him how to interact with others.

One of the first educational methods that helped Thomas communicate was the use of a “picture board.” Picture boards help him start sentences — “I want” for example — and then show different objects, such as books, paints, puzzles or a computer. Student can then change the image depending upon what they want.

Another of the core deficits of students with autism is difficulty dealing with unpredictability.

But with help from a paraeducator or Pack, autistic students can learn to overcome the barrier with time.

“Thomas was only able to do 15 minutes in the classroom at a time at the beginning,” Katie Mosser said. “Now he can do over an hour.”

Another of autism’s many manifestations are the hidden talents each student possesses. Though his skills dealing with chaotic environments in a classroom are low, they are high in areas that have any sort of pattern, be it in reading, on computers, or in organization.

Though non-communicative, Thomas would organize the family’s shoes and book collection on a daily basis. He builds expansive, detailed models of towns in the family’s front yard, using twigs as lampposts, for example. He also displays amazing skills with computers and video games.

“He can play (a video game) for an hour, and then not play for months,” Katie Mosser said. “And then he’s able to draw these huge maps of the entire game.”

His skills on the computer have led him into a bit of trouble, however.

“He’s broken and fixed Nancy’s computers and he’s cracked three passwords on our computer,” Fish Mosser said.

Benefits from working

with students with autism

“Then the Big Billy Goat Gruff joined his brothers in the meadow where they ate and ate and ate,” Thomas said on June 15 — the day he performed “Three Billy Goats Gruff” with his fellow students.

Another first the Mossers never expected — acting in a school play.

“You see him now with his buddies at school and it’s amazing,” Katie Mosser said. “They acknowledge (Thomas) and he acknowledges them.”

“The benefits in the long term to society are having each student be as independent, self-supporting and self-sufficient as possible,” Siskin said. “As opposed to having to maintain care taking all the way through their life.”

By becoming self-sufficient — through an increased IQ and better communication skills that are proven through early treatment and inclusion in classrooms — the need for state institutional help later in life is vastly decreased, if not gone altogether, according to reports from the UW.

“The state would be paying for (students with autism) to be institutionalized,” Fish Mosser said. “But thanks to Nancy Pack and her crew, they’ll become productive citizens.”

The financial benefit alone is remarkable — the UW also reports that early intervention saves the state $2 million over the lifetime of a person with autism.

And his fellow students — as well as staff of the school — also benefit.

“It really teaches empathy,” said Brown. “The regular class gets an opportunity to be empathic to learning differences.”

“The kids and the staff benefit from this whole project,” Poulsbo Elementary Principal Jerry Willson added. “We make sure they go to recess, to lunch and to class with us. And we benefit from that.”

Katie and Fish Mosser hope that by the time Thomas reaches middle school, he’ll be fully included — all day — in a general classroom. They don’t deny he’ll struggle with autism during his life. But through the help of Pack’s program, as well as other supplemental programs in which he participates, he’ll become not only a fully included member in the classroom — but in society.

“Their dedication and patience is incredible,” Fish said of Pack, Thomas’ paraeducator Claudia Young and all the paraeducators. “They’re like super teachers.”

Fish said he sees his son working in the information technology field when he grows up, possibly developing software with his many talents on the computer. With what he already knows at age 8, there’s no telling of what his abilities might be out of high school, perhaps out of college.

Through unlocking his gift, Thomas Mosser will live a life much different than his parents ever imagined. And because of this new chance, there is no way to know where, and how far, his skills may go.

“He’s going to be a computer whiz,” Katie Mosser said, “and probably put Bill Gates out of business.”

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