Special education students rely on strong support system to overcome daily challenges

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Unable to walk on his own, Kenny Knutson relies on his parents to move him around the house in a wheelchair.

He eats from a feeding tube since he can’t close his mouth or bite. His eyes are permanently open, so his parents apply drops to moisturize them.

“We`re very lucky that he`s able to talk to us,” said Kenny’s older sister, Kaitlyn Knutson. “He can still read. And he can still learn and everything. Some kids can`t actually speak.”

Kenny has been diagnosed with Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, or ACC, which means his Corpus Callosum, the part of your brain that connects the right and left sides, is underdeveloped.

The doctors explained to Kenny’s family that it’s like having the “super highway” of his brain — where information can pass quickly between both sides — cut off.

“He has to use the country roads to get the info where it needs to go,” said Kenny’s mother, Danielle Knutson. “So he is a little slower to do things, cognitively and physically. Also, the ACC results in global developmental delays for his gross motor control issues.”

Meet Kenny

This means a regular day for Kenny is a lot different from the average student.

A seventh grader at Woodbury Middle School, Kenny is one of six million young students enrolled in public school special education programs, according to the National Education Association. The variety of disabling conditions ranges from autism and Asperger’s syndrome to emotional disturbances, developmental delays and speech, language or other health impairments.

Kenny doesn’t switch classes. Instead he stays in the same room all day and learns basic grammar or how to memorize his phone number. At home, Kaitlyn helps her brother with everyday activities most teenagers take for granted, like peeling a banana or playing an Xbox game.

It’s hard on Kenny’s family because they often see the reaction from strangers, and can only do so much to protect him from it.

“A lot of times little kids, like, they don’t understand. They usually stare at him because of his eyes or something,” said Kaitlyn, 14. “I remember one day we were walking, and there was this family passing by, a woman and her two children. And I could hear as they walked by, the little girl said, ‘Mommy, what`s wrong with that boy?’

“And you know, it was hurtful. But I also know that she was a little girl that was curious, and depending on what her mom told her, (that’s) how she is going to judge. Because some kids, they’re lucky they have parents who are very sensitive. And they’re able to tell them about it and say it nicely, while some people are like, ‘Oh, they’re just retarded.’ Very rude people that don’t understand those sorts of things.”

Daily Challenges

Stacy Lundell, a licensed marriage, family and play therapist at PrairieCare in Woodbury, helps special education students cope with everyday social difficulties.

Once-per-week, she meets individually with teens to discuss anxiety or depression issues. Most of Lundell’s patients are there to discuss bullying.

“Sometimes the (special education) kids may think that they are the victim, but are not realizing that they are a bully too,” Lundell said.

In special education classes, many students have trouble controlling their behavior or understanding how it affects others. That might lead them to badger or otherwise harass their peers without recognizing what they’re doing.

“They don`t think they are doing anything wrong … and the students who may be bullying them may not understand that, either,” Lundell said.

Self-esteem is also a big issue. Because their brains aren’t able to function normally, Lundell said special education students often feel overwhelmed and think they can’t complete a task. This affects their ability to keep trying. They also dwell on negatives and label themselves “bad” or “stupid,” she said.

Sally Ryan, a special education teacher for Aris Clinic in Woodbury, deals with students who may be too anxious to attend a regular school. Aris operates a one-room schoolhouse that divides students into two groups — elementary and junior high school in one, senior high school in another.

Regular school subjects are taught at Aris, but an additional individualized education plan is administered for further evaluation. There are different areas that can qualify a student for an IEP, for instance, speech and vision difficulties.

Many students start in the program at a young age and stick with an IEP through college. The benefit of an IEP is that special education students get more time to work on assignments or take tests, Ryan said.

“Students go to a professional for a whole day or check in with someone,” she said. “It depends on the level.”

‘Really sweet kids’

It’s a lesson in patience, one Kaitlyn knows firsthand as Kenny’s sibling. She admits to internalizing a lot of frustration, especially as a child when her interests took a backseat because of Kenny’s scheduling or lack of accessibility. As he’s become “an annoying teenage boy,” his tendency “to repeat things constantly” continues to test her.

Yet having seen her brother’s progress firsthand, she hopes that others will take the time to get to know special education students like Kenny before making judgments.

“Give every person an open heart regardless. Whether they are disabled or not,” Kaitlyn said. “Some have amazing skills in reading or math and might not be as good in other things. Or they just might not look like they’re good in other things.

“If you just get to know them, you can find out that they are really sweet kids.”