Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fifth grader with autism wins National Geography Bee


Eleven-year-old Aaron Cvengros of north suburban Winthrop Harbor is autistic. But that didn't stop the Our Lady of Humility School fifth-grader from becoming the first student there to win an academic competition with the use of a letter board.

Aaron won the National Geographic Geography Bee on Jan. 22, participated in by other fourth- through-eighth-grade OLH students. The contest is designed to help spark interest in the subject.

Identifying the location of Puget Sound was the winning ticket for the boy.

"It was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen," said OLH Principal Patrick Browne. "This was one of those breakthrough moments. And it was the first time a student at OLH has won a contest using the RPM (Rapid Prompting Method)."

Denise Lamm, Aaron's assistant who helps him in the classroom, said the boy used the regular letter board for the geography bee, using RPM by pointing to each stenciled letter with a pencil to spell out his answers. "He used the stencil so the judges could see his choice," said Lamm. In class he sometimes uses a laminated board.

Aaron's mom, Annette, said her son has been using RPM to communicate since he was in the first grade.

Aaron, using a letter board being translated by his mom, said he won a medal in the competition. His mom said he wouldn't wear the medal all day at school because he didn't want to seem boastful in front of his fellow students.

"He said that he congratulated the other young lady (runner-up Sarah Olson) and he told her she did her very best," said Annette.

"We are just really proud of him," said his mom. "It's an awesome accomplishment and what's great is he has a real interest in this." Part of Aaron's therapy included intense studying of maps since he was only 2. "It paid off," said Annette.

Annette explained she prefers to say that her son is "recovering" from autism. "Because that's how we see it," she said. "We've seen many children improve." Consistently working with Aaron and providing him expert help has made the difference, she says.

His mother also believes allowing Aaron to be in a regular classroom has also been good for his academic and emotional growth. He has been in an inclusive setting at OLH since kindergarten.

"By winning this competition, a public statement was made that goes to show that just because of autism, you are still capable," said Principal Browne, adding that one out of every 150 children has been diagnosed with autism.

"It's an encouraging story," said Aaron's mom. "Not too many special-needs families get encouraging words. And this is hopeful because it shows that all things are possible."

Annette and her husband Terry have two other children, including Deliah, 17 who has Retts Syndrome, and attends Laremont School in Gages Lake. Another daughter, Seiree, is an eighth-grader at OLH. Grandmother is Beach Park Village Clerk Laurie Cvengros.

Aaron's mom and Seiree, 13, helped him study for the bee. Though she said she had every confidence in her younger brother's intellect, Seiree said she wasn't sure he'd win the contest because of his age. "I think he's really smart. Better than me at his age," said Seiree.

After two hours of intense questioning, seventh-grader Sarah Olson and Aaron competed for the top.

After being notified Aaron won, the Cvengros family celebrated by eating brownies and special gluten-free cake (Aaron is allergic and eats gluten-free food).

This week, Aaron took a 70-question written exam to see if he qualifies for the state level of the geography bee. In March, OLH will be notified if Aaron will go on to the state competition.

In May, state winners are invited to Washington D.C. to compete in the national finals. Prizes include scholarships in the amounts of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000.

Asked of his mother what he would do if he gets to go to the national level, Aaron said with his letter board, "I would be excited and I think I would have a shot at winning."