From Silence to Song

In just one year at the Bronx Early Learning Center, Tommy, an active and playful 4-year-old with autism, has gone from silence to song.   

The Bronx Early Learning Center (BELC) is VOA-GNY’s special education program for preschool students with developmental delays or disabilities, many of whom are on the autism spectrum. 

Students are placed in classrooms based on their developmental needs, and connected with on-site speech, occupational, and physical therapists, as well as counselors. The BELC is a lifeline for its students and their families, many of whom live below the poverty line and contend with housing and food insecurity, among other challenges. Not only does it provide the early interventions these young learners need to prepare for kindergarten, but it’s also a source of support and hope for parents. 

Tommy with his mother, Selene, at BELC.

When Tommy first arrived at the BELC, he was nonverbal, withdrawn, and easily overwhelmed by new experiences. It was his first time being away from his mother, Selene, and he had a hard time adjusting to the change. During his first few weeks at the school, Tommy would cry every day and struggled to communicate his needs. His frustration often manifested in harmful behaviors, such as repeatedly banging his head until his nose bled. 

Within the nurturing environment of the BELC, however, Tommy’s behavior has begun to change. 

He has grown especially close with Ms. Gonzalez—a dedicated teacher with a deep understanding of autism, fueled by her personal experience of raising a son on the autism spectrum. Ms. Gonzalez, known to her students as Ms. Jasmine, affectionately refers to Tommy as “my son.” She works closely with Tommy’s speech therapist and occupational therapist to meet his unique needs, which is how she first learned about Tommy’s love of song. 

With this new insight, both Ms. Gonzalez and Selene, his mother, have made a point of singing to Tommy to calm him, entertain him—and teach him. “If I tell him a word, he’ll look a little confused, as opposed to if I sing to him,” says Selene. “He starts to identify the ABCs or numbers when it’s sang to him.” Since Tommy’s been in Ms. Gonzalez’s class, Selene has noticed a significant change in his speech. “He doesn’t say full-on sentences, but he does say words now!” 

As Tommy’s confidence has blossomed, his tolerance for trying new things has increased dramatically. He has strong sensory preferences when it comes to texture, and there was a time when touching the soil during a recent classroom activity of planting seeds would have led to a meltdown. Now, said Ms. Gonzalez, “He just went and washed his hands with no problem.” 

Today, Tommy is a vibrant presence at the BELC. His boundless energy finds expression in jumping on the trampoline, climbing, and running. He loves singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and lining up his favorite toys. That’s a big change for the preschooler, who was so shut down when he first arrived at the BELC that he wouldn’t even play with toys. 

With the end of the school year approaching, Ms. Gonzalez’s focus is on preparing Tommy for the next step: kindergarten. “I think he’ll do good,” she says. He’s gotten so independent. He comes in happy now. At first, he would come into school angry—now he comes in smiling and happy.” 

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