Lessons of love


Staff writer

Eight-year old Mickle Kwan holds a close bond with his special-education paraeducator, Heidi Becker.

He places a hand, palm forward, on each of his cheeks and watches while Becker mirrors his action, putting her own hands on her cheeks. This is a sign of affection, while nuzzling Becker’s face means he trusts her.

And when Becker asks Mickle why he likes attending Mark Twain Elementary School, he types “I like going to school because of friends” into the keyboard of his Pathfinder, a laptop-like communication device with a small screen and a mechanical voice which serves as Mickle’s voice to the world.

Mickle has autism, a condition that delays developmental areas such as communication and social interaction.

“It didn’t take very long for him to be trusting and caring with me,” Becker said.

She became Mickle’s one-on-one teacher at the beginning of the school year and will remain his paraeducator throughout the rest of his years at Mark Twain. This is his first year at the Federal Way school.

“At first, he was very noisy, disruptive,” Becker said.

At the beginning of the school year, Becker had to walk around outside with Mickle every 10 to 15 minutes to help him refocus. Now, she walks with Mickle every 40 to 90 minutes.

The students in his reading class are friendly with him, especially Anna Embuscado, one of his closest friends. He reads with her, and she looks out for him and calls him “Mr. Mickles.”

“It is amazing how he turned it around,” Becker said. “Now kids (are) running up to him. They have just come through with flying colors. They all want to help him.”

The students compete with each other to determine who gets to help Mickle with his schoolwork.

“He’s much more like a regular student now because we have expectations for him,” Becker said.

Before going to Twain, Mickle attended what’s known as “contained” classes, where all students have some kind of developmental challenge.

Last year, Twain’s assistant principal and special-education teacher, Diane Conn, observed Mickle putting together blocks during class.

“It’s not very stimulating for a child like Mickle, who’s very intelligent,” Becker said.

Mickle is now working on his multiplication tables in two-digit numbers, while the rest of the class is just learning addition.

The months of long work have been fruitful.

“This is the first year he is fully included in a regular classroom,” said Mickle’s mother, Ginger. In the past, teachers at other schools “didn’t really recognize his abilities,” she said, but things have improved since moving Mickle to Twain’s inclusive (students with special needs in the same classroom as other students), nurturing environment.

Ginger said Becker is “terrific. She is the best.”

In November, Mickle and Ginger, along with Becker and Conn, attended the 14th annual King County Legislative Forum on developmental disabilities issues. In front of about 70 state legislators, Mickle gave a speech with his Pathfinder on how his class and caring classmates are helping him thrive at school.

“A lot of times, people don’t see the benefits of inclusion,” Ginger said. She talked to legislators about the importance of inclusion for children with special-education needs, outlining how the federal law IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) affect students like her son.

“Our job as educators is to remove the barriers that exist within children,” Conn said. “Our school has a long history of working with kids with disabilities. We try to honor every individual, no matter what their differences are.”

About three months ago, representatives from TASH (an organization which promotes equity, diversity, social justice and inclusion for people with developmental disabilities) came to Mickle’s class to film him for a documentary.

Becker said that when they arrived, a young female student asked her, “‘Why are they here to see Mickle?’” Becker answered, “‘Because he’s a special boy.’” The girl’s response was, “‘Well, I’m Asian. too.’”

“All kids like him,” Ginger said. “They see him as part of (themselves).”

But Ginger emphasized that Mickle is a boy first, rather than an autistic child.

“He loves people. To us, he is a person first,” she said.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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