FIRST OF 2 PARTS
Haku Souza is one of the most popular kids in his school. He’s tall, athletic, polite and soft-spoken. Girls fight over who gets to have him in their group during class projects. His teachers speak of him with such fondness and admiration.
Haku is 11, a fifth-grader at Aina Haina Elementary School, a child with autism and the light in his mother’s world. Ola Souza, a single mom, is his first teacher, his fierce advocate, and, sometimes, though she knows him better than anyone, the one most surprised by the miracles in his life.
“It sounds cliche and something parents of special-needs kids say to make ourselves feel better, but it’s absolutely true that our kids will teach us more than we will ever teach them about things that are truly, truly important in life,” Souza said.
The latest statistics are dramatic: autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in 68 children, a rate that has been steadily climbing since tracking started in 2000. There are 1,822 students with an ASD diagnosis in Hawaii public schools. The causes are unknown, but for many parents of kids who have autism, rather than focusing on “Why?,” the constant questions are “What can I hope for my child’s future?” and “What can I do today to make things better?”
This is a story of one mother who asks those questions every day and a child who dearly loves a challenge.
On a sunny December day, Haku went through drills with PE teacher Ryan Segawa. Haku shot baskets, hopped through a rope ladder and jumped small hurdles. Souza traces the beginning of so many of Haku’s successes to special PE with Coach Ryan, which started when Haku was in third grade.
“What I love about this kid is he is so driven,” Segawa said. “If you give him a challenge, he isn’t going to stop until he learns how to do it.”
One time, Segawa challenged Haku to make a 3-point shot. “He stayed out there for half an hour working on it, almost to the point of a tantrum, trying to make that shot,” Segawa said, smiling. “Not too many kids that age would do that.”
Segawa taught Haku to jump, which doesn’t seem like much, but it led to other triumphs. At first, Haku didn’t get the concept of jumping and would only get a few centimeters off the ground. Over time, Segawa worked on his vertical jump, then long jump, then taught him to jump rope.
“Hands down, he’s the most athletic kid I’ve worked with,” Segawa said.
The school participates in the annual Jump Rope for Heart, a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. As a fourth-grader, Haku raised the most money of any student in the school. His mom did the fundraising, but Haku did the jumping. The important part, though, was the support he had from his schoolmates.
“There was the whole school, 600 kids, screaming and cheering for my kid,” Souza said. “Autism was irrelevant. He was just himself. All the years I worried if my kid would even talk, when I wondered if he’d ever have friends — he was jumping and autism was gone. He was just like every other kid.”
Souza also credits Haku’s third-grade teacher, Paul Sutton, with having a big impact on her son. Sutton, she says, never assumed Haku couldn’t do something.
“The first four years, there was no homework,” Souza said. “All of a sudden, in third grade, I’d open his folder when he came home and there would be little cursive worksheets. And Haku could do it. And he really enjoyed it.”
Sutton is the kind of teacher who shrugs off praise. “Haku was there in class, in part to build up his ability to be with his peers. Why not have him do the assignments as well?”
Haku communicates best with people he knows. He can ask for what he wants, but his conversation is limited. He can read, search for information on his iPad and he has what his mom calls a “freakish ability to memorize” long passages of narration. Souza and Sutton figured out ways to leverage Haku’s skills. One time, there was an assignment to find a poem and recite it in class. Haku picked a poem about a whale, and Souza recorded herself reading the poem on Haku’s iPad so he could memorize it by listening to it over and over. After Haku’s presentation, some of his classmates realized that by memorizing the poem, he had gone a step beyond them. “I think his classmates see him as a hard worker,” fourth-grade teacher Cheryl Samuels said. “The kids see that there’s some kind of disability, but in most areas, there’s not.”
Samuels recruited Haku to be in her fourth-grade class. In her early years as a teacher, the mom of a boy with autism asked if she would take her son into her “regular” classroom. “The mom said, ‘there are days when you have something planned and you’re not going to want him there, so on those days, you call me and I won’t bring him to school,’” Samuels said. “She gave me an out. And you know, I never called.”
Samuels hoped for the same sort of synergy with Haku, where he could be part of the class to the best of his ability and his classmates would become friends and allies. She says it happened with very little effort on her part. During class projects, Haku’s classmates would fight over who would get to have him in their group. Two girls in particular became his advocates, and they figured out how to help him without doing the work for him. The teachers say the entire culture of the school changed that year.
“Bullying him became the uncool thing to do,” Segawa said.
“Every day was a good day,” Samuels said. “The gift of having Haku in class was he made things so easy for me. I didn’t have to teach things like empathy or teamwork. It was just happening.”
Haku brings home the same paperwork that his classmates do — notices about sports tryouts, clubs, robotics. “I go through all the notes every day and end up tossing every one, going, ‘Not for us. Not for us,” Souza said. “But then, a paper came home about running for student council. I started to throw it away, and then I stopped.”
This was in the afterglow of the Jump for Heart victory, and Souza says, “I thought, these things are mostly popularity contests … and my kid is popular.”
So she filled out the form to declare Haku’s candidacy for historian. She figured he could handle going around the campus and taking pictures to document the school year. “I hoped that his classmates would think, ‘If he doesn’t know how to take pictures, I’ll help him’ and, ‘It’s OK he doesn’t take any pictures.’”
His classmates helped to make posters, and Haku delivered a campaign speech during a school assembly. Souza wrote the speech and recorded herself reading it on Haku’s iPad so he could memorize it.
When the election results were revealed, Souza came to campus to hear the morning announcements.
“When the names were announced for president, vice president, the students all clapped. But when they said, ‘Historian – Haku Souza!’ you could hear the cheering all through the school.”
Haku didn’t understand the significance of the election results, but the school did. They had elected a hard-working, sweet-natured, deserving classmate who happens to have autism.
“It was a victory for those kids,” Souza said.