Community Support is Key to Inclusion

Grace and Ariel Costa-Medeiros are sisters who live in Marion. They both went to Old Rochester Regional High School and are both 19. That’s right, they are twins and they both have a passion for what they do – Grace with her sewing and Ariel with her writing and graphic art.

As far as twins are concerned, they certainly aren’t identical. Their mom, Susana, says Ariel takes after their dad, who is more quiet and down to earth, while Grace takes after Susana, who is the more spirited, enthusiastic and lively of the two parents.

Yes, the two young ladies share a set of parents, a home, and a birthday, but they also share something else: they both have a place on the autism spectrum and both, with the support of their family, school, and community resources, are using their strengths to carve out a pathway to fulfillment and inclusion in their community.

Grace doesn’t talk much. She much prefers hugs from her mom and has her own unique ways of communicating her needs and wants. She loves to swim, watch DVDs, and likes watching ballet performances, but what Grace really likes to do is sew. She found she had the knack for sewing when she was rather young and her grandmother, a seamstress, introduced Grace to the needle and thread, buttons, and the sewing machine.

Susana said the school was very supportive of Grace’s interest, helping to nurture that strength and making it part of her school curriculum. The autism specialist, Cathy Freeman, was a particular influence for Grace, Susana said.

“Cathy really started this,” said Susana. “Cathy bought a few of these sewing kits … that come with these felt shapes of animals. Gracie really liked them, so Cathy made about another hundred of those herself and Gracie loved them.”

Freeman said that ever since she knew Grace during her first years with Project Grow, Grace always loved working with her hands.

“She’s a wonderful seamstress and she does a fabulous job,” said Freeman. “Not only is she able to get real satisfaction for herself, but also a potential career.”

Outside of school, Grace takes part in the Building Futures Project with the Nemasket Group in Fairhaven. The program provides support for students with extra needs and helps prepare them for life in the community after high school.

Susana said Grace’s involvement with the workers at the Building Futures Project has “broadened Gracie’s world.”

“Between [the Building Futures Program] and Cathy, Gracie went from being a child with autism … not very verbal and focused … to a person who can be out in the community, going to [craft]fairs, a few quilting groups … Pat [Charyk] (from Nemasket) takes her here, Pat takes her there, I mean she really, really opens up the world. There would be no Grace as she is today without Cathy and Pat. They just understand her so well.”

Grace needs a lot of support, says Susana, mostly because she has a difficult time concentrating sometimes. The support she is given helps her overcome her anxiety, Susana said, allowing her to work on her sewing, sell some of her pieces at craft fairs, and work part-time at TJ Maxx. She also volunteers at Gifts to Give. She still attends school at ORR and will be entering the school’s first soon-to-be established age 18-22 community-based instruction program.

Susana said Grace was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified), which is a form of autism. Grace seemed on track for her first year, but soon after she started drifting away and regressing into a world of her own.

“When she was diagnosed, I just wouldn’t accept it,” said Susana. “I wasn’t ready for it.” She said both her girls seemed to be doing fine, except they weren’t meeting their verbal milestones on time. “They were both very active,” she said. Ariel was diagnosed in second grade, she added, with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism in the “higher-functioning” range of the spectrum.

Ariel’s passion is for writing and drawing. She graduated from ORR last year after receiving the Principal’s Award. Ariel said she loved her creative writing class, mostly because her teacher was so supportive and encouraging. She was in the honors art class and took art lessons privately outside school. She is taking a year off before starting college, hopefully in graphic design, said mom with a wink.

One of her illustrations was one of the 13 chosen from 60 entries to be put on display at the State House as well as the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich.

“I’m hoping to enter a contest that one of my support people has been talking about in hopes of getting my work out there because I’d like to earn enough money to get the heck out of here,” said Ariel, sounding like any typical teenager. Her mom chuckled.

Susana pointed to a watercolor painting on the wall of their Marion home of a tree-lined river and sunset.

“She wanted me to throw that away!” said Susana.

“Oh, mom…” Ariel argued that the trees were supposed to be cherry trees but they turned brown instead of pink so she hated that painting.

“I like digital art better because it’s easier to fix what you mess up,” said Ariel. She’s not that into realism, she said, preferring anime and cartoons instead. She joked that her social skills are “sub-par,” with her subtle, pessimistic sense of humor of hers, and Susana laughed, reminding Ariel how lucky she is that her mom has a hearty sense of humor.

Freeman said she has also known Ariel since she was a youngster in Project Grow and developed a friendship with her throughout her years in school up to graduation and continuing to this day.

“She’s another very talented young lady,” said Freeman. “She’s come a long way from when she first began to work with her art. All her time and energy and her focus … it’s very encouraging to me to see that she’s been able to expand her horizon … and expand her career choices. The two girls certainly have a lot to offer.”

By Jean Perry


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