EDMONTON – When her daughter Shylo was 14 months old, Debbie Kirton could tell something was different. The toddler was fixated on organizing items; anything from videos to toys. Kirton also noticed that Shylo seemed distant.
“When you looked at her, you were looking right through her, ” Kirton said. “You didn’t see anything. She was just – not there.”
Shylo was diagnosed with autism about a year-and-a-half later.
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Kirton says she could tell her daughter understood her, but Shylo couldn’t communicate. By age seven, the little girl still hadn’t said a word. She also couldn’t feed herself or pay attention in school.
Shylo’s life took a dramatic turn in Grade 2. That’s when she met Tracy Hanson, an educational assistant at Virginia Park School. Hanson had worked with children with special needs for several years and was about to push Shylo in a way that clicked.
“If it was story time, I would expect her to try to sit – even if it was five minutes – and then after that, if she was uncomfortable, then we could leave,” Hanson explained.
“I made her just try a little bit of everything in very small doses.”
She approached painting in the same way. Shylo wouldn’t go near a paintbrush so Hanson gave her a feather to use, tickling the little girl’s face with it so she wouldn’t feel intimidated. Little did she know, the creative activity would spark a skill Shylo hadn’t been able to share.
“I said, ‘Shylo, I really wish you could talk. What colour is that?’ And she said, ‘Pink,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’ Hanson recalled. “You could tell what she was saying but it wasn’t really, really clear. And it was like ‘Oh my god, she can say a few words!’”
Hanson says after that breakthrough, Shylo’s classmates began pointing to different objects in the school and asking her to tell them the colour.
“She would say ‘blue’ and then they would hug her and give her a high-five. So it just took off from there.”
All of the practice has paid off. Just over two years later, Shylo can say more than 285 words. She takes part in school activities and has made friends.
Hanson was recently recognized with an Edmonton Public School District award for her work.
She says Shylo’s progress demonstrates what can happen when a student with special needs trusts their teacher and feels supported.
“Try anything and everything because you don’t know. They don’t fit into the regular curriculum.”