A Special Kind Of Support
At 17, Mary Hammarlund already has a pretty impressive resume. The junior at Sheboygan Falls High School is a member of National Honor Society, Student Council, The Talon newspaper staff, reads the daily announcements, serves on the prom committee and has won awards for academic excellence.
But getting here hasn’t been easy. Mary has a form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Sometimes considered a less severe type of autism, individuals with this condition have normal to high intelligence and normal language development but experience difficulties with social and communication skills.
“I want everyone to know that even if it seems that I’m different, I’m really not that different from everyone else and I have a potential to succeed,” said Mary, who credits much of her academic and social success to the constant support of the district’s special education staff.
“I would not have been able to succeed without the strategies that they helped me come up with because certain noises and smells would cause me to have a meltdown,” she explained. “ I feel like if I hadn't received the support that I have, there is no way that I would be able to be involved nowadays.”
Mary’s involvement with the school district started at three when her mother took her in for an early childhood screening.
“She was our first child and we just thought she was stubborn and had all these rules,” recalled Mary’s mother, Amy Hammarlund.
If her milk carton had a picture of a dinosaur instead of a dog, she would have a meltdown. Her cup always had to have a straw in it.
District staff referred her to the early childhood program and after two years, they diagnosed Mary with autism. At that point, she was very withdrawn and would not even respond to her name.
Staff at all three district schools worked in conjunction with her academic teachers to develop her social and communication skills. She had speech therapy and occupational therapy. Amy Hammarlund said that teachers were so responsive that they gave her support and advice during the summer when school was not in session.
“The special education department was amazing,” she said. “We didn’t even know what she needed.”
Special education teacher Jodie Miles worked with Mary from second until eighth grade. Mary participated in social skills, community outings, peer groups, used visual supports, technology, had a visual schedule was notified of any loud and unexpected noises and had a toolkit she could use in the classroom.
The transition to middle school was difficult. There were new routines, noises and teachers to get used to. As time went on, however, Mary found she was able to cope on her own without always relying on the special education staff support.
“She knows how to do these things herself,” Amy Hammarlund said.
Miles continued to work with Mary even after she left middle school. She was a student helper in Miles’ summer school classes and has returned to the middle school to help with Family Fun NIghts, job shadow and just help in the classroom.
“From the moment I met Mary, I knew she was special,” Miles said.. “I’m not sure if Mary realizes that she has taught me just as much over the years as I have taught her. Despite some of the challenges Mary has had, she has so many more wonderful qualities.”
Miles said Mary’s “bold and fun personality” and her passion for her friends and family and causes she believes in make her an energizing presence who is always fun to be around.
“Mary has grown into an independent and fine young lady, I can not wait to see what her future holds!,” Miles added. “I know she can and will achieve any dream she has.”
In addition to her academic achievements and extracurricular involvements, Mary is taking driver’s education and has a part-time job at a local convenience store. She also has plans for college and a career. She wants to go into teaching and follow in the footsteps of her role model, Jodie Miles.
“I want to go into special education,” Mary said. “I struggled a lot when I was younger and she helped me a lot. I hope I can be an example to others like she was an example for me.”
“In addition to Mrs. Miles, there were many staff members who have gone out of their way to help me in elementary, middle and high school. I appreciate their support throughout my school career in Sheboygan Falls.”
Mary also works hard to educate others about autism. Every April -- National Autism Awareness Month -- she gives presentations to other students and discusses her story to inform others about autism and challenge some of the misconceptions and myths that still exist.
“I remember what it felt like, “ she said. “It was very lonely. I hope by talking about it, I can raise awareness.”
She has already made a difference to at least one student. After one of her presentations, he told his classmates that he was autistic.
A little support makes all the difference.