Autistic boy a mystery writer and now a champion speller

Didn’t talk until he was 3; today, at 10, he excels

By Karina Bland

Ten-year-old Theo Vermaas won the spelling bee last month at Broadmor Elementary School in Tempe, the first time he’s ever won anything.

This also is the first time Theo, who is autistic, has been part of a regular classroom, doing the kinds of things typical fifth-graders do.

He writes short mysteries that include characters from school, like the principal, who appears as an evil witch in his latest story. At recess, he plays kickball with other kids, racking up 72 home runs so far.

Statewide, 3,574 autistic children are in public schools, often taught in separate programs or classrooms.

The goal is to get them, like Theo, into regular classrooms, says Camela Cooper-Cook, program specialist for special-needs students in the Tempe Elementary School District.

“We want them to have all of those rich school experiences,” she says.
Autism is a neurobiological disorder that interrupts normal development of language and socialization. Many people with autism also have unusual ways of learning or reacting to noise or other stimuli. That can make being in a regular classroom difficult.

So, when it’s appropriate, those students join other kids for music or recess. The law requires that special-needs students be in the least restrictive environment.

Of the eight students in the Structured Education for Alternative Learning Styles, or SEALS, program at Broadmor, two are in regular classrooms with the help of an aide.

In the morning bustle of his classroom, Theo doesn’t seem much different from the other kids, except it’s cold outside and he’s in shorts and a T-shirt. His mother says he doesn’t seem to feel the cold and won’t wrap up.

At the start of the school year, Theo would write just a few lines but only if he had to. Now he is producing stories that cover five sheets of notebook paper, with plot twists and dialogue.

After morning announcements, Theo stands in front of the whiteboard to read his story about graffiti that mysteriously appears at the school and how a young detective must figure out who did it.

He reads too quickly, and Gibbons puts her hand on his shoulder: “Go slow.”
This is the first time she has taught an autistic child. She treats Theo as much like her other students as possible. The way she sees it, “They all have strengths and weaknesses. They all have the ability to learn and grow. You have to give them that opportunity.”

His classmates clap when he’s finished. He grins and pulls on his bottom lip.
When called to read aloud, Theo used to stand with his back to the other students. Now he tells his classmates that his next story will be about a huge fissure that surfaces at school and swallows Gibbons. (The class is studying land formations in science.)

Theo writes his mysteries in a day. His own story has been years in the making.

Theo didn’t speak until he was 3, said his mother, Meiny Vermaas. He wouldn’t say “Mommy” or “Daddy,” but he would spell out the words on an electronic toy.

“I saw this very brilliant child basically trapped because he could not express himself,” she said.

Her husband, Wim, teaches molecular genetics and genomics at Arizona State University. Their 17-year-old son, Josh, already is a senior at ASU. He’s studying computational math, physics and biochemistry.

But, in first grade, Theo spent as much time in the principal’s office as the classroom. He would throw tantrums, sometimes a dozen a day. A developmental pediatrician diagnosed him with autism.

His parents decided against medication and instead follow a treatment regimen based on the thinking of a group called Defeat Autism Now, which views autism not as a brain disorder but as a metabolic disorder that affects the brain.

Theo has been through neurofeedback and sensory integration learning to help him deal with all the sounds, textures and movement of his world.
Meiny Vermaas credits that regimen with her son’s being able to stand on stage in front of a cafeteria full of people for the spelling bee.

Theo will compete in the district competition on Jan. 24. School officials don’t know for sure if he’s the first child with autism to compete because it’s the child’s ability to spell that matters, not his disability.

Since he won the school spelling bee, a new character has appeared in his stories: “Theo, the Spelling Bee Champion.”

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