October 23, 2006

Autistic Boy Wins Spelling Bee

This is from June, but it makes me so happy... so here":
Autism no hurdle for this champion

Dennis McCarthy, Columnist

Arlene Delaney was beginning to worry. The spelling bee championship at Oxnard Street Elementary School in North Hollywood had been going on for more than an hour, and the fifth-grade teacher was getting nervous about how one of her students, Kevin Livas-Hastings, was holding up.

Lights and noise often distracted the 11-year-old autistic boy, and she wanted to get him off that auditorium stage to a quiet, relaxed place as soon as possible.

But how could she? He was spelling every word right.

The only special-education student in her fifth-grade class was winning the competition.

More than 25 fifth-graders had started the spelling bee more than an hour earlier, and it was now down to two.

Kevin's classmates in the audience were going wild, cheering and clapping every time he aced another word.

"I kept looking at Kevin to make sure he was doing all right sitting up there for so long," Delaney said. "He'd look back at me smiling, giving me the thumbs-up sign every time he spelled a word right."

And now, after an hour and a half, it was just Kevin and a little girl from another classroom who finally misspelled her word - "congratulations."

Kevin spelled it right, then aced his word - "mathematics."

"Everybody went wild," Kevin said, smiling. "My classmates rushed up on stage and started hugging me. I felt great. Winning is so much fun."

In the back of the auditorium, Delaney; Gricelda Duenas, a teacher's aide; and Sandra Guardado, Kevin's one-on-one, special-education aide since first grade, hugged each other.

Then the women broke out the tissues.

"It's incredible how far this little boy has come," Guardado said Thursday, watching Kevin's classmates sign his T-shirt on the last day of school.

"In first grade he was so shy, isolating himself from all the other kids. Now he's one of the most popular boys in fifth grade, winning the school spelling bee. Amazing."

Yeah, it is, but not totally unexpected to Kevin's parents, Arnold and Ramona Livas-Hastings. They knew they had a special little boy on their hands when he was in kindergarten.

The doctors had told them that with autism often come some very special talents. Kevin began to display his every morning at the breakfast table.

"He started to read the morning newspaper with me by first grade, and by third grade he was reading words off my vitamin pill bottles," Arnold said, laughing.

"He was saying words I couldn't even pronounce."

After Kevin came home from school last week wearing his spelling bee medal, he made the rounds of all the neighbors to show them, his father said.

"He went from house to house, and all the neighbors were so thrilled for him. He was wearing a smile ear to ear. We're just so proud of how far our son has come."

So were his classmates at Oxnard Street school, saying goodbye for the summer to the only special-ed kid in class.

"You're cool," Jennifer Argueta said, signing Kevin's shirt and giving him a hug.

"He knows he's smarter than me. I finished eighth in the spelling bee."

Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
(818) 713-3749

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