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Imagining a More Positive Future for Special Needs Children

Walter Kays

Walter Kays

Under the umbrella of special needs children is an incredibly rich diversity within a rainbow of unique individuals experiencing daily struggles against mountainous odds that are yielding positive outcomes and meaningful contributions to their families. Thanks to a village of parents, teams of therapists, organizations devoted to the developmentally disabled, teachers and other health professionals, special needs individuals can learn to overcome obstacles to independence, reach personal goals and give back. From the developmental-, behavioral-, emotional- or sensory-impaired or physically challenged, the negative images surrounding their journeys are slowly being transformed into motivational provocations that are yielding encouraging impacts.

Loving parents of children diagnosed with autism, Debby and Terry Kays, founders of Tigertoes Herbs & Teas, in Naples, as well as Diane and Victor Presto, who founded the MVP Autism Foundation in 2011, don’t deny the existence of challenges and difficult family experiences, but rather choose to focus on their child’s abilities and potential, which they believe could be a key for transforming negative cultural images.


Walter is the 23-year old son of the Kays. A resident in a local group home, Walter helps his parents at their small farm, which grows locally sold fruit, vegetables, herbs and teas. “Our farm training program is for special needs individuals interested in gardening. We welcome anyone who wants to try their hands at it,” says Debby.

Walter likes shoveling and spreading mulch from a wagon that he pulls. “He’s not fond of pulling weeds or getting dirty, although he enjoys harvest time,” explains Debby, who describes her son as an agile young man that can play all types of sports and even run a marathon. “Walter’s poor articulation, struggles to assemble his thoughts into sentences and inability to write are obstacles to his insatiable desire to write rap music, which he loves listening to. His other hobby is making tie-died T-shirts,” says Debby.

Embrace the unique way your child is blooming—even if it’s not in the garden you imagined.

Parents can be obstacles to helping children find meaningful work with the potential of generating financial rewards. “Any level of success only happens if parents wholeheartedly embrace the idea that their child is capable of doing something without their help. Don’t assume that you know your son or daughter’s inner thoughts and desires better than they do. This mindset leads to making wrong decisions for them. Let them explore possibilities and outlets for their passions or hobbies. It helps to consult with professionals such as Minerva and Boaz Nelson, owners of Picasso Einstein, or locally with Dr. Norman Katz, at Katz Counseling and Educational Psychology, in Fort Myers,” counsels Debby.

Focus on Strengths

The Presto’s son Michael has had unusual reading and spelling abilities from the age of 18 months. Although Michael had difficulty with the physical skill of handwriting, his reading skills, ability to memorize letters, Michael Prestonumbers and symbols on a computer keyboard facilitated his learning to type and provided him with employable skills.

“We focused on Michael’s strengths—memorization, spelling and typing 50 words a minute without mistakes. As a result, he developed skills that enabled him to work updating complex census information,” advise the couple, whose local nonprofit addresses the lack of employment opportunities, as well as the need for health initiatives and social enrichment programs.

Michael prefers volunteering at Oakes Farms, in Naples, to working in an office. His dream of writing a cookbook is one that his parents believe is achievable. In the meantime, he loves to cook and takes great joy in packaging bread at Oakes Farms, as well as planting and caring for flowers and vegetables at the Naples Botanical Garden.

Federal law guarantees an education in certain public classrooms for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities until they’re 21. Once they turn 22, they’re on their own. “We had to think ahead about what we would do after the school bus stopped coming,” recalls Victor. Although it’s emotionally painful to stand aside, we encourage parents to accept that their special needs children have to fall down, learn to get back up, move along and explore outlets of self-expression that offer joy and satisfaction.

Exposure and Possibilities

Karen Govern, executive director of the Foundation for Developmentally Disabled’s (FDD) Trailblazer Academy takes pride in the fact that the academy is the result of concerned parents with children that were aging out of high school and after-school programs, as well as support services.

Focused on structured daily vocational training at various job locations, fitness and recreational activities, nutrition education and independent living skills, art and community enrichment, 28 trailblazing individuals between the ages of 18 and 30+ are presently working at a variety of jobs as a result of FDD partnerships with 20 local nonprofits and businesses.

“We introduce individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to jobs in work environments that range from retail establishments and restaurants to office settings, data entry, animal care, landscaping, performing arts and customer service, so that they can explore job skills, determine what they are good at and what they most like to do,” explains Govern.

Life Skills and Employment Readiness

Michelle Turchetta is the area director of the Easterseals Academy and program for life and social skills development, employment readiness, advocacy and participation (LEAP) A private school for middle and high school students with autism and other developmental disabilities. The academy’s transition-to-work program, with classroom and work experience, is designed specifically for students 17 to 22 years old that are working toward employability.

The academy accepts Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship, as well as the McKay Scholarship, which make school choice possible for many families.  

“Sometimes our challenge is to help students and families to understand that finding a child’s niche starts with a volunteer experience or internship, and that no job is menial. The individual who works at a veterinarian’s office offering comfort to animals after surgery is a priceless asset to the vet and pet owners. We need families and business owners to think outside the box and create opportunities for people who don’t fit into the box,” remarks Turchetta.

Change the Behavior, Not the Personality

Katz, a Ph.D., counsels parents and their special needs children. A deep insight, garnered from his work, is one he considers important. “While individuals with autism often want to change their behavior, they don’t want to change their diagnosis if they have accepted it. They often feel insulted that others want to cure them,” he says.    

Success within the world of autism doesn’t necessarily mean achieving our culture’s normal goals—living independently, getting married or having children. Although an individual may be extremely high-functioning in an intellectual sense, they might not be functional in a long-term romantic relationship or in living on their own. None of this means failure if they are happy and functioning as independently as possible.

Personal Growth

Kays acknowledges how her son has made her life richer and more interesting, “I’ve learned to be more giving to others, more accepting and understanding. I wouldn’t have known that I had the ability to be an advocate, understand and retain the amount of knowledge that I’ve been exposed to, or that I could be comfortable meeting the numbers of people I’ve encountered,” says Kays, who works part-time for Interpreting Application Services (IAS), a Naples-based company that provides supportive employment for individuals with disabilities. Kays found IAS through Walter, who needed IAS services.

When more families come to view their experiences in a positive light, not only might the negative perceptions regarding the impact of disability on families slowly fade away, parents of the newly diagnosed might find that the inspiration and encouragement cancels out their fear and anxiety.

Local Resources

Easterseals Academy 8793 Tamiami Tr. E., Ste. 111, Naples. 239-403-0366.

Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled Trailblazer Academy, 594-9006.

Interpreting & Application Services, 5405 Taylor Rd., Ste. 4, Naples. 239-206-5477.,

Katz Counseling & Educational Psychology, Inc., 12791 World Plaza Ln., Bldg. 89, Fort Myers. 239-247-1756.

MVP Autism Foundation, Naples.

Tigertoes Herbs and Teas, Facebook: TigerToes.herbsandteas.

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