Celebrating Small Victories

Children with severe disabilities are treated with compassion at local public school and privately owned therapy center

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Richard Linck

PlayBig provides a space for children with autism and other neurological disorders to learn, grow, achieve, succeed and, of course, play. 

There are those who measure success by money earned or office held, or, as children, by number of homeruns hit or grades received; but there are also those who find gratification and victory in the attainment of much simpler milestones. 

At Gretchen Everhart School, Leon County’s special education center for students with significant intellectual, medical, physical and behavioral disabilities, the principal and a special education teacher both stop what they are doing and smile, jubilantly, as a boy, about 12, walks across the room and grabs a tissue out of its box. He wipes his nose and walks back to his table. 

“Wow, Tyler! You just wiped your nose all by yourself!” exclaims Principal Jane Floyd Bullen. The child’s teacher, Joi Bennett, offers her student further praise.

Next, a 10-year-old boy grabs the principal by the hand. He holds his other hand up to his mouth and makes a circular motion. He is obviously very proud to show her that he can now brush his teeth. She beams down at him and congratulates him on his success.

“Success, here, is helping these children be as independent as possible — as self-sufficient as possible,” Bullen says.

Across town, at PlayBig Therapy & Learning Center, grandparents and parents are brought to tears by actions that others may take for granted: a grandchild asking for chips, and siblings playing together, contentedly. 

PlayBig treats children with neurological challenges that include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) — a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction accompanied by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.

“They have a different way of thinking, and their brain circuitry is set up differently,” says Kelley Hutto, a licensed Physical Therapist and the founder/co-owner of PlayBig. “It’s not that they are unintelligent.” Hutto’s statement is supported by current studies, which show that 50 percent of children with autism have a normal to high IQ. 

According to Florida State University’s Autism Institute, which serves over 3,300 individuals in 18 counties in the Florida Panhandle, ASD is a lifelong diagnosis; but with appropriate early intervention, individuals with ASD can lead productive, inclusive and fulfilling lives. Many do well in school, participate in activities they enjoy, go to college and are employed in adulthood. 

But the diagnosis can still be devastating to parents.

The grandmother of a 5-year-old PlayBig patient, who asked that her name and her grandchild’s name be withheld, describes what it’s like for parents to learn that their child has autism. 

 “You mourn the loss of the son you always thought you’d have. You have high expectations when they are born. Then when your child is diagnosed with autism ...” She shakes her head, sadly. “It’s a challenge.

“But,” she continues, “there’s beauty in the process. You learn to find such joy in the smallest things ... like, he put two words together today, or he looked me in the eyes today. There’s such joy.”

She looks at her grandson through the glass window that separates the waiting room from the play area. “He’s happy here,” she says. “The therapists here truly love the children. It’s a calling, not just a vocation for them. I feel that he is safe here. He is loved here.” 

The boy’s grandfather says, “He was basically feral before starting at PlayBig. Now he knows where he’s at. He follows instructions. His biggest obstacle, now, is being non-verbal.”

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