URBANA - William was an undemanding baby who would lie content in his crib while his mother, Lisa Webb, took care of his older sister, Brittany, now 7.
When William grew teeth, he started grinding them. When he started to walk, he walked on his tiptoes. But Lisa and Scott Webb didn't start worrying about their son until he was about 3. He didn't talk, but he did act "ornery."
"It was devastating," Lisa Webb said of the diagnosis, after a battery of tests at Carle's Child Disability Clinic, that their son is autistic, locked in a brain disconnect that means he can't communicate with his family members, classmates and other people he would encounter in his life.
"He spent a day there getting a full workup and evaluations," Webb said. "He saw 11 doctors in one day. A week later, we got the diagnosis, and (pediatrician) Annette Lansford said, 'Get him into a school program right away.'"
The Webbs started doing research about the disability, which robs people of both social and communications skills.
Scott and Lisa Webb said as William grew, their quiet baby started to misbehave.
"We think he was very frustrated because he couldn't communicate," Scott Webb said. "We thought he was a bad, rambunctious child.
"It's like being in another country, you can't speak the language, you have to stay, and no one understands you," Lisa Webb said. "If you teach a child how to tell you what he needs, he doesn't need that behavior, and you see the difference."
At Carle, William learned some basic sign language, and he still uses it, but less and less frequently. Also at Carle, the Webbs met Betsy Smith, a social worker at Washington School, and she persuaded them to have William screened by the district for the Washington early childhood program so he could be around other children and start developing social skills.
"He's been there since October 2001, and even before we started the PECS system, we could see a tremendous difference," Lisa Webb said. "They make a video of a child's behavior when he or she first starts, and with William, it's a night and day difference. Now, for example, he makes eye contact."
Teachers learned about the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, last year and thought it would make a significant difference in William's abilities. In February, the Webbs went to a district workshop to learn how to use it at home while William was learning it in school.
"Autistic kids are more visual than verbal," Lisa Webb said.
Keys to the system include a simple binder with plastic pages, laminated pictures of common objects in a child's life and "lots of Velcro," Webb said.
One of the simplest pictures, a hand reaching for a glass, represents "I want." At home, William, now 5, pulls that picture off a Velcro strip on an inside page and mounts it on a removable Velcro strip on the cover, adding a picture that represents crackers. But he's not finished. He searches the book for a minute and adds a picture of a bottle of ranch dressing to the strip and takes it to his mother.
"He likes to dip his crackers in ranch dressing," his mother said.
"At home, if he can't get through, he gets the book and shows us," Scott Webb said.
A lot of William's current home communications are now related to food, but at school, his teachers are trying to increase the complexity of the communications.
"You can build in descriptive words and colors," Lisa Webb said. "You can build and build complexity. It's hard when you have a non-verbal child who's sick. We're starting a piece called 'I hurt' and hoping to build on that with pictures of an ear, a hand, a stomach. Teachers at school want him to work toward expressing feelings like happy or sad.
"When William's 10 or whatever, I'd like him to be able to take a trip to McDonald's and order what he wants," she said. "It's very universal and everyone can understand. If you're signing, unless it's a deaf community, no one understands."
The Webbs still hope William learns to speak, something that happens to some children and adults who use the PECS system for the first time and learn the power of communication.
They credit William's success to his team of teachers at Washington, and they now are planning with those teachers to make his transition to kindergarten at Wiley School smooth because children must leave Washington when they turn 5.
"It took months of planning," Lisa Webb said. "We had to decide whether to put him in special education at Thomas Paine or in Wiley. The specialists said they're not sure so we should go where we want to go. We're having a meeting Tuesday with Wiley teachers to start planning what we need to do to make him comfortable there."
"The early education program is very important for a lot of children," Scott Webb said.
"People have been institutionalized because they had problems like William has," Lisa Webb said. "We're glad things are better now. We think there are a lot of kids out there who could benefit from this program. It's so easy, and it can make a huge difference in your life."
"This is his voice," she said. "And it makes you feel so much better. "
Getting ready for school
URBANA - William Webb doesn't talk, but the other children in Tracey Wade's Washington School class don't even notice as they move quickly from activity to activity.
Wade and teaching assistant Cyndy Skeels control the potential chaos that 12 3- to 5-year-olds can create by channeling the youngsters' energies into productive play - and work.
Wade, for example, learned to work with the picture exchange communication system last February, and she gets William's attention so she can help him learn new ways to talk to his teachers, classmates, parents, and, eventually, to everyone he encounters.
The goal, she said, is to help William, who is autistic, and two other classmates, who have disabilities that interfere with their communication, learn how important it is to exchange messages with other people.
"I love it that it's their voice," Wade said. "They learn they can make requests and tell others what they want."
"It's hard to keep up with William," she said. "There's one downside of the system for children like him. He moves fast, and it's hard to keep up with him. He might want to say something, and there's no picture. Otherwise, it's wonderful."
About 280 youngsters attend school at Washington on North Broadway Avenue, all of them identified as children who need a transition program to make their beginning in elementary school successful.
About 90 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, one district method for identifying children who may be living without many resources and may be at risk.
Some of the students in the school have physical or mental disabilities, and they'll likely move on to special education classes at Thomas Paine school.
But most of the youngsters at Washington will pick up skills they need before going to mainstream classes at elementary schools.
Principal Connie Brown said the Washington program started 30 years ago as a special education program and later expanded, with grant funding, to serve at-risk children.
Today, the Washington program survives on patchwork grant funding from a variety of sources and for a variety of specific uses.
That makes Brown worry, especially with budget reductions happening both in Urbana and in the state.
She said teachers and professionals at the school work in teams to assess each student's fine motor, gross motor, cognitive, social and communication skills, and they then work together to address each child's deficiencies.
The school district screens youngsters who are approaching their third birthday - an evaluation that's free - to determine whether they qualify for the program, which continues for two years until they're old enough for kindergarten.
"We give them preschool opportunities we'd like to see all kindergarten students have," Brown said.
She said educators have always faced challenges working with children with communications delays. "But education in general has made great strides in that field," Brown said.
She said the secret to the school's success in addressing all 280 students' needs is cooperation - among the teaching teams' members and from parents at home.
"Our parent support is wonderful," Brown said. "They're glad to see their children get the opportunity to attend Washington."
Wade said some parents need to get comfortable with the school's setting, but almost all parents focus on their children.
"They're open. They come in, they ask good questions, and they want to help their children succeed," she said. "Some come in without social language and fine motor skills, but most of our children go into mainstream kindergarten programs and do very well. They'll be able to write their names and cut shapes and do other tasks."
Lots of activities go on at the same time in Wade's and Skeel's classroom. Some youngsters, including William, work with trucks and scoops at a sand table while others play with child-sized furniture. One young boy plays with a computer program.
Wade shows several youngsters pictures she's taken of them and posted in a journal. Each tells a story about the picture, and she writes their words in the journal.
The teachers also made a T-shirt for each child stamped with pictures that represent something they've studied that year.
"They're memory T-shirts, and we've stamped the whole year on it," Wade said.
Washington's annual carnival, one of several family events at the school, is set for May 31.
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .