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Boonsboro High student keeps making the grade

December 02, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Danny Schultz's blue eyes twinkled as she talked about her favorite books, her favorite foods and her favorite subjects at school.

But when the 17-year-old was not talking, she listened as her mother discussed the complications of the Boonsboro High School senior's disability. Sitting at the dining room table in the family's Keedysville home, Danny often looked down at her red velour sweater: Her eyes softened and her lip pouted when she wasn't biting it.

Danny is autistic. She's been in Washington County Public Schools' classrooms with students her age since the third grade, but her mother, Alexandra Ward, said Danny doesn't know her classmates well. Her conversations with them usually end at hello.

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"In a sense, she's like a 3-year-old. She's pure. She doesn't lie. They don't understand the social games we play or sarcasm," Ward said.

Social activities are the most difficult for her, but Danny would attend every high school dance if she could. Her stepfather, Randolph Ward, escorts her to dances on occasion.

"I don't eat in the cafeteria at school. It's too noisy," Danny said.

As a child, Danny was terrified of loud sirens, Alexandra Ward said. Danny described a bad dream in which a Hazmat truck chased her. She can tell the difference between a range of emergency sirens.

Danny, whose given name is Danielle, decided she wanted to be called Danny in the fifth grade and the name stuck.

Cheryl Strong, Washington County Public Schools' interim director of student services, said Danny is a "very high-functioning" autistic student.

As her parents talked, Danny would walk away from the family's dining room table. She grabbed a diary she started at age 10 in which she wrote the alphabet in English and in Greek. She grabbed her favorite book, an anatomy encyclopedia, and leafed through the pages to show different parts of the human body. Her favorite system is the digestive system.

Danny started at Marshall Street School, Washington County's public school for developmentally disabled children, at age 3, then was placed in classes with students her age as a third-grader, Alexandra Ward said.

"Danny has always excelled academically. She's been a straight-A student all through high school," Alexandra Ward said.

When Danny was younger, teachers sent home a journal with thoughts on her daughter's performance or with questions. Alexandra Ward would answer questions in the journal and send it back to school with Danny.

The next step is college, she said. Since Danny qualifies for Social Security at age 18, she also qualifies to have her college tuition waived.

"I want her to go to college," Alexandra Ward said. "I figured since she is doing so well, why not college?"

Danny wants to be a marine biologist. She described a recent trip to Florida. During her stay there, she would not go into the ocean because she feared an exotic jellyfish was swimming in its waters.

"If she's stressed, it can bring about tension," Randolph Ward said.

That is why Danny must have order during her school day, he said. Changes in plans usually cause her to have tantrums, so her teachers have learned to warn her in advance of any difference in routines.

An aide is available to answer questions Danny may have had but couldn't ask during class.

"I do want to be normal, really, like other people in my school," Danny said as she bowed her head.

Alexandra Ward grabbed Danny in her arms and hugged her, reassuring her that she is smart and beautiful.

"She's a good girl, but autism has its ...," Alexandra Ward said, her voice trailing off. "They're special."

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