There is a lot of promise in Joshua Setia. The tiny 3-year-old showed that this week. On Monday, he bravely climbed into a big yellow bus and entered a new world: School.
Being in a classroom the first time is scary enough for any boy this age. Joshua is autistic.
He held his mother, Elisa Setia, tight as he waited for his bus, turning away from strangers and pulling at his Tshirt. They stood on the street after dragging a bright red backpack just feet in front of an empty apartment they’d moved into that very morning following a long ride from Gila Bend.
The family moved to enroll Joshua in Tempe Elementary School District’s Getz School. Joshua’s father stayed behind in Gila Bend, operating a small hotel to support the family.
Joshua’s mom felt a mix of apprehension and hope as she watched her youngest child board the bus, his curious eyes suggesting what he might say — if he could. A year ago, she realized Joshua was autistic after he began to bang his head against walls when upset, continued struggling with speech and would lie down in front of children trying to slide in the playground. A special diet has helped. Now it’s the school’s turn to help this boy — and this family — communicate and grow.
"I just feel blessed my son can go to this school," Elisa Setia said. "I feel sad though, that I have to leave everything. But we’ll do everything for him."
Moments later, the bus comes to a stop. Joshua’s eyes squint nervously at the sight of dozens of small children. Unsure where to turn to avoid strangers, he clutches teacher Nancy Hornyak. His trust in her means everything.
At first, Joshua pushed himself to the safety of Hornyak’s lap as her students gathered in a circle for their morning songs. She sat him in a chair often used the first day for autistic children — a chair with a buckle — and he soon calmed. An hour into school, he was playing with other children. By the end of the day, he was revealing his vocabulary: "Hello. Thank you. Drink, drink, drink."
He even began to learn a language that will pull him through the rest of his school days, called the picture exchange communication system, where pictures are used to communicate.
Hornyak has pages of goals for Joshua written in detail in his Independent Education Plan. But they really come down to teaching Joshua social and communication skills to prepare him for kindergarten — probably a mainstream one.
So it was hard for the veteran teacher to describe her feeling when, by the end of the day, the smallest child in class jumped in excitement at group songs, and smiled after matching pictures and objects.
"He’s got a lot going on in there," she said. "This is just so exciting."
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The Tribune will follow Joshua Setia’s progress throughout his first full year of school with teacher Nancy Hornyak and classmates. To see more photos of Joshua’s experience online, visit www.eastvalleytribune.com.