In the turquoise waters under the fluorescent lights at the Baraboo indoor pool, the boy was splashing happily, bouncing — not swimming, exactly — but loving his newfound buoyancy nonetheless.
It was great until his teacher Hayley Hawkins came over.
Her voice is sweet and her smile is ever-present, but she’s tough, and he knows it.
“Time to try floating on your back!” she says with enthusiasm, knowing exactly how it’s going to play out.
He shakes his head vigorously. As Hayley and another teacher each take hold of a shoulder and a leg, lifting him into the vulnerability of being belly-up with his ears in the water, he shrieks.
It’s hard to watch.
But to Hayley, it’s almost a matter of life and death.
The boy is autistic, and accidental drowning accounts for 90% of deaths in autistic children, according to the National Autism Association.
He will learn to swim. She will make sure of it.
“I tell parents, as a teacher, I’m not the one who gets to be loved,” Hawkins said. “I have very high expectations for them. But when you give them that expectation, they will meet it. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ll meet it.”
Autism is a mystery within a mystery.
Children along the autistic spectrum may avoid eye contact, balk against being touched, and want to be alone.
They may be obsessed with certain objects or interests — for one child in Ms. Hawkins’s class, it’s everything Ghostbusters, all the time.
They can be hyperactive, aggressive, injure themselves or have meltdowns.
They can lack impulse control and be fearless in dangerous situations, or they can show panic and fear for no reason.
And to complicate things further, many children on the autistic spectrum can’t communicate what they want or why they’re doing what they’re doing.
“Their brains are on overload,” Hawkins said. “I picture in my mind a file cabinet. First they hear what I said, then they go through this huge file cabinet to find it, then they need to pull it out, then they need to say it. Think about when you have a million things going on and you’re trying to cook dinner and your kids are yelling and you can’t think of what you’re trying to say — it’s like that for them all the time.”
In short, they live in a different world, and Hawkins’s job is to wait until they invite her in.
Until this school year, kids with autism shared space with students with cognitive disabilities. This year, for the first time, there is a designated room at East School for autistic kids from across the district. It's one of the only such programs in the state.
"We have been seeing a dramatic increase in the number of students identified on the autism spectrum over the years," said Dani Scott, director of special education and student services for the district. "As a district we want to meet the individual needs of all of our students. Ms. Hawkins and our educational assistants are absolutely amazing and totally dedicated to our kids. I couldn't ask for anything more."
The room is a haven for kids for whom the world is often too much.
Hawkins has covered the fluorescent lights because autistic children can be bothered by a flickering so minimal that most people wouldn't know it was there. A swing suspended from the ceiling offers soothing rhythm. She has hidden the iPads and put out Play-Doh to meet their sensory needs.
"Whether they use sign language or verbalize, they're communicating a lot more, rather than acting out. That's what I've been most excited to see in them," Hawkins said. "If you need something and you can't communicate it, think of how frustrating that would be, even if it's something as simple as "I'm burning hot get this sweatshirt off me." It's like Temple Grandin said: "I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out, so I would just scream."
Children with autism tend to wander - away from safety and the people watching them, and toward things that draw their attention and soothe their senses.
Water is one of those things.
"They have a fascination with water, and if they see it, they're going toward it, not thinking that it's going to be dangerous," said Tabitha Fosco, whose son Drake is in the program at East.
Fosco had looked into swimming lessons for Drake, but the individual attention he needed in the pool came at too high of a cost.
That's when she decided to rally Team Drake, the fundraising organization she started that had raised more than $12,000 for autism research in the past four years.
If they focused their efforts locally this year, she thought, maybe they could make more of a difference.
And maybe the other parents of autistic kids in the district could benefit from their children learning to be more safe near the water they so love.
Team Drake fundraisers helped raise enough money for bussing and pool time, and the kids started going to the pool in March.
The results have amazed Drake's mom.
"We have tried for summer after summer to get Drake to float on his back. For whatever reason, they don't like to do what their parents tell them to do," she laughed. "I said to Hayley, 'You're in the pool with him three times and he's doing it.?"
Swimming is just the latest in a series of triumphs large and small.
Drake's parents didn't know that he was able to spell or write or do math until they went to his parent-teacher conferences. His teachers were reaching him in his world, and gaining a peek behind the curtain of his mind that his parents hadn't had.
"We're able to start pushing him at home," Tabitha Fosco said, "now that we know what he can do."
Tony Teasdale describes his son Carter as "the St. Bernard that thinks he's a chihuahua," the growing boy who still wants to crawl into his dad's lap for a cuddle.
Carter represents the other end of the autistic spectrum. He's sociable and will make eye contact with you, smile and laugh.
But he can't communicate all that he wants to say, and that frustration sometimes builds into meltdowns.
Hayley Hawkins and Carter's former teacher, Kari Ropicky, helped Carter communicate through sign language. It eases his frustration at school, so he?s better able to learn - and at home, so he can have a childhood more similar to his brother and sister.
"Everything they're doing is helping even with smaller transitions - okay, you're playing toys, it's time to eat dinner, time to brush your teeth, time to go to bed," Tony said. "It's all gotten easier."
Life has gotten easier.
For Tony, a big breakthrough came a few weeks ago when his restless, shaggy-haired son let his dad give him a stylish fade haircut. "He sat there and actually let me do it for once," Tony said, smiling slowly with pride. "Everyone at school was telling him how great it looked."
April is National Autism Awareness Month. For the people who love and teach these kids, awareness is one of the biggest pieces to making a difference in their lives.
"People don't understand that they have all this stuff going on through their head and they're just trying to work through it," Tabitha Fosco said. "If you've ever had an anxiety attack, that's what they're constantly going through. People need to be not so judgmental but more open. They're all amazingly smart, but what they're thinking in their head they can't necessarily get out."
Tony Teasdale doesn't remember having kids with autism in his class growing up - or even knowing what autism was. Society is adapting and learning about how to educate kids like Carter, he said, and the program at East is a perfect example of this positive change.
Because they were in the same school, Carter's older brother could volunteer in his class.
And when classmates would make fun of kids like Carter, his brother could use that closeness to chip away at their ignorance.
"He would take Carter over and sit down with his friends, and say, 'You don't really know my brother - you don't know anything about him," Tony said, tears welling up in his eyes. "He'd say, 'Here, meet him, he's amazing.'"
And he is. In his own way, like every child.
The awareness goes both ways at East, Hayley Hawkins said. Autistic kids see behaviors modeled by their peers, like walking quietly down the hallway, eating lunch together, and transitioning from recess back to the classroom.
And general education kids learn about compassion and differences. Some of those kids choose to spend their recess hanging out in Carter and Drake's room, and give them high fives and hugs in the hallway.
They carry that understanding out into the world.
When autistic kids have meltdowns in public it's usually the adults who have the hardest time handling it, Hawkins said. The kids get it.
He's learning and he's working through something hard, they think. I do that, too.
Back to the boy in the water, who didn't want to float on his back.
As Ms. Hawkins and one of her assistant teachers lift him into a floating position, he struggles and thrashes a bit.
"You can do it ... you can do it..." she says.
And then, as suddenly as resistance had begun, it ends.
He puts his hands behind his head and lets his body relax a bit. He looks to his teacher for reassurance and her eyes go wild with excitement.
"You're doing it! You're doing it!"
And in this moment there is the resiliency and triumph that every parent hopes to see in their child, and that every teacher hopes to impart.
For more information on Autism Awareness Month, click here.