After years of searching for a welcoming school, The Joshua School (TJS) opened up a world of acceptance, encouragement, and possibility to Richard and Linda’s son, Max. Richard and Linda first noticed differences in Max's development when he was an infant, including speech, attention, and behavior challenges. He was given a medical diagnosis of autism at around age 3 and was also identified by Denver's Child Find program as needing early developmental support.
Prior to enrolling at TJS, and with the help from a very intuitive developmental neuropsychologist, they made their way to an ABA program. While Max had made little progress in two typical preschool programs, his development began to blossom in an intensive-intervention ABA program. He was essentially taught to imitate-small motions, speech sounds, ultimately words, phrases, and purposeful actions and movements, a process that made him available to learn life skills and to interact with his world. His parents were then introduced to the world of special education in the public schools, which simply did not work for Max. They felt that these traditional programs were not able to address his unique ways of learning and provide the "scaffolding" to ensure his optimum growth and development. During these frustrating and bewildering school years, they were fortunate to have private access to after-school ABA support and tutoring from a dedicated friend and teacher.
As Max neared high-school age, his parents began to explore an array of discouraging options and made the difficult decision to move to a Denver suburb so that he could attend a well-regarded special needs program in a local high school. Unfortunately, they encountered more of the same "lack of fit.” Max was not thriving, was losing interest, and the school staff was not able to meet his needs. At that point they were sure they needed to look to a specialized program and TJS quickly came to their attention. They reached an agreement with the school district that a change of placement was needed and Max transferred to TJS during his second year of high school, when he was seventeen years old. One of his teachers recalls meeting Max for the first time. Max told her he was a big fan of female singer/songwriters. His teachers stated, "Over the next few years, my Spotify account was absolutely taken over by Britt Nicole and Taylor Swift playlists."
His teacher, Shelby recalls, "My first time meeting Max, I remember how quickly he walked over to meet me. I was intimidated by such a tall man coming over, but he just wanted to introduce himself and know who this new person in the class was! I was a substitute teacher and he quickly asked if he could work with me sometime!"
His parents immediately recognized the difference! Overnight, Max was smiling and looking forward to going to school in the morning. His unique interests and abilities were recognized and incorporated into the structure of his programming and as his parents believe, “he trusted that he was safe and valued.” As a result of his love of restaurants and waitering, Max’s team encouraged him to take pancake and “pizzadilla” orders from schoolmates, work in the TJS kitchen to prepare the treats, and then deliver them to friends. This expanded into weekly opportunities to make his own lunch in the TJS kitchen, honing an important life skill and giving him a great sense of accomplishment. He was now preparing shopping lists, going to the grocery store to get ingredients, and returning to school to prepare the food. The team also recognized that Max loved to make things for others. They gave him time, space, and materials to create bracelets for the school community, building his sense of connection with others and his ability to reach out to make friends. Most importantly, the team recognized how much Max enjoyed making a contribution in the world. They arranged work experiences that would develop his sense of belonging in the greater community.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, Max was able to do weekly recycling at the University of Denver, even having a "formal” interview for the job and, as he proudly exclaimed, being “hired on the spot!” All of these experiences have helped Max to feel known and valued as a community member and have served as scaffolding for both academic and life-skills learning. This broadening of Max's horizons over his five years at TJS have given his parents the courage to be expansive in their hopes and plans for Max's future. They want him to have an adventurous and independent life, where he makes new connections, enjoys new experiences, and creates meaning for himself.
(Max and his parents on graduation day.)
Max left a great impression on his teachers from day one. His BCBA recalls, "I remember my first day at TJS being greeted by Max with a hand shake, a big smile, and a homemade pipe cleaner bracelet. Max was so social and so interested in getting to know me, and quickly taught me all about playing mean witches that would turn me into hot dogs, walls, and milkshakes for the next 4.5 years!"
Not only will his teacher miss Max's big smile when he is working with Mr. Tommy, but also some of their thoughtful conversations. His BCBA said, "[Max] was able to surprise me several times with a rogue question about God, life and death, or his place in the world. I'll always cherish the opportunity I had to meet the thoughtful, intelligent young man behind the mean witch games." His BCBA also said, "Max has had such an impact on all the staff who have worked with him! We are all so impressed with his resilience over the years and proud of the independent, young man he's developed into. His big heart, goofy humor, and silly games will be greatly missed."
His teacher, Shelby has "enjoyed how much Max enjoys just hanging out and chatting with teachers. I have had many long discussions with both of our heads on our hands, chatting both about our lives and really silly games! He is such a fun person to hang out with and will definitely be missed!"" (Shelby and Max pictured on the right.)
What will Max be doing after he graduates from TJS? He has recently moved into a new home with wonderful full-time caregivers who his parents hope will continue to inspire him to expand his life skills and try new things. They have found an adult day program that they feel will be a worthy successor to TJS in continuing to bring learning, friendship, and community to Max's life. Max’s parents hope to encourage the incredibly special people at TJS, who have helped shape Max's growth in recent years, to continue to have a role in Max's life, as friends and mentors. The TJS team is uniquely well-equipped to cheer Max on in his future life! They are so very grateful for this extraordinary village.
These are some pictures of Max on graduation day with just a few of the TJS staff who've made his experience at TJS so special.