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Equity in Action: Haskell Family praises ASD Program

     Aiden H. is a GCPS student in the ASD ProgramBefore attending Gwinnett County Public Schools, Aiden couldn’t articulate telling his family “I love you.” This soft yet simple gesture was hard for the innocent young man because he was born with a unique skill set. Aiden was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a young toddler. Brian Haskell, Aiden’s father, shares, “That early intervention was a key contributing factor to his success.” According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Autism can affect social communication and interaction, and cause restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests.

     Aiden’s mother, Ashlei Haskell, an early childhood educator with 25 years of experience, realized her son was “different”. She currently serves as an Assistant Principal at Meadowcreek Elementary School. Once it was determined Aiden was facing Autism, the journey for himself and his family was only beginning. Ashlei emphasizes, “Getting a diagnosis for Aiden was a lonely and confusing journey… It brings tears to my eyes when I think of the utter frustration of knowing that something is wrong - I feared he would never fit in.” The CDC says finding resources and planning for the Autistic person’s future can help families improve their quality of life.

     Nearly a year after he was diagnosed, Aiden started preschool with the ASD Program at Prodigy Point Preschool which has a Gwinnett County school district-assigned teacher. This program is a part of the GCPS Department of Special Education and Psychological Services, an award-winning program focused on meeting the special needs of individual students. While Aiden’s parents said they were nervous in the beginning, that feeling didn’t last long. “Ms. Jones was his K-2 ASD teacher and she always listened, took her time to explain anything we didn’t understand, and filled in the blanks,” Ashlei explains. She added the teachers in this program had an impact on Aiden and made them as parents feel “seen and heard.” 

     After evolving in preschool, Aiden was nurtured by Ms. Terri Lester in kindergarten at Brookwood Elementary School. During this time, Aiden still had a few obstacles to overcome. “Machine noises, in particular, would induce rounds of screaming, rocking, and crying,” Ashlei added. Aiden’s fits were unpredictable, and his family struggled because they were unsure what noises, smells, etc. would trigger him. Yet Ms. Lester and her team were motivated to help Aiden “find his voice.” They began teaching Aiden how to regulate his emotions and navigate his social skills. Ashlei says many children with ASD don’t have friends because they are “often in their own worlds.” However, one day - something magical happened. Aiden came home screaming, “I have a FRIEND!” It was another student in his ASD class. The GCPS teacher successfully taught Aiden how to navigate relationships, tolerate stimuli, and how to advocate for himself and his needs. 

     The ASD Program at GCPS displays the importance of Equity every day and is clearly highlighted in the Blueprint for the Future, which emphasizes Equity, Effectiveness, Empathy, and Excellence. Ashlei told us Aiden’s teachers are “the embodiment of those tenets.” She adds, “When Dr. Watts says, ‘Each and Every Child’... he means Aiden and countless others who are given empathic and equitable instruction to reach their full potential.”

     Ms. Lester says people with Autism are the most unique people on the planet. “They pull on my heartstrings… I chose this profession so I can make an impact in each of their lives by giving them the tools they need for their toolbox.” She adds that while every day is a challenge, every day brings something good. When asked about the ASD program teachers at GCPS, Ashlei says, “These ladies see it as doing their job, but Brian and I see it as literally changing this child’s life and future generations to come.” 

     Now, after eight years with GCPS, the courageous Boy Scout is ready for middle school! Aiden’s teacher says, “He advocates for himself… he’s no longer that quiet little boy waiting on someone to play with.” Recently, Aiden gave an articulate speech to the GCPS Board during a meeting, advocating for electric school buses! Shortly after, Aiden’s father approached the same podium. He thanked GCPS and said the school district’s special education programs were “vital” for Aiden’s development. Brian speech on Aiden’s journey brought tears to attendees’ eyes during the meeting. It’s safe to say Aiden can officially articulate telling his family “I love you.”