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Haley Smith throws her head back in delight as she gets ready for bed. Haley, 18, has severe nonverbal autism. Each day, she struggles with completing everyday tasks and communicating with others.

A Hand to Hold

story by Andrea Noall

Haley Smith's sobs echo through the school halls as her tears fall onto an unfinished homework assignment.

Her teaching aide's fingers delicately stroke her hand, in hopes of bringing comfort.

"Shhh, it's going to be okay. You're going to be okay," says teaching aide Megan Ward.

Her cries start to fade as her breathing slows and her smile returns.

From birth, 18-year-old Haley has lived with severe, nonverbal autism and now has the mental ability of a 2-and-a-half-year-old. All her life, Haley has struggled with becoming an independent individual, and she still needs assistance in everyday activities.

"When you've never experienced someone with autism, you have to learn right along with them," says Haley's grandma, Nora Seibert.

Through her studies at Livingston Central High School, Haley learns mathematical, linguistic and communication skills that will benefit her for years to come. Each Wednesday she volunteers at the Paducah Cooperative Ministry. where she completes simple tasks that build her social and job skills.

Through close relationships with teachers and family, Haley has blossomed into a goofy, lovable person. Her grandparents, Nora and Charles Seibert, are her legal guardians who truly shaped her as a person and taught her how to live her life as independently as possible.

Her father, Jeffery Smith, visits every two weeks.

"Haley has always been a daddy's girl," Nora says. "You can easily tell who the favorite is when he's around."

Communicating is a huge problem for Haley. She becomes easily upset and frustrated, and is unable to tell others what is troubling her. But Haley has a large support system that comes to her aid when she needs comforting. Simple gestures such as rubbing her back, hands, neck and fingers instantly soothes her and softens her cries.

"She is just an experience," says Charles Seibert. "You just have to experience Haley."

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Nora Seibert shaves her granddaughter's armpit after helping Haley take a bath. Haley's grandparents are her primary caregivers and work hard to teach her how to be more independent. Although Haley can complete some simple tasks, she still struggles with many aspects of daily living.

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Charles Seibert ties Haley's shoes for her before she leaves for school. Haley attends special education classes at Livingston Central High School in Salem where her teachers cater to her needs and help her as much as they can. Some of her teachers fear that as Haley grows older, her ability to learn and care for herself will begin to diminish.

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Haley cries out in frustration as she becomes upset during class time. Teaching aide Megan Ward tries to calm Haley by holding her hand. Throughout the day, Haley has "fits" and becomes upset and stressed about many different situations.

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Teaching aide Jane Miller strokes Haley's hand during art class. Whenever Haley starts to become upset, her aides and loved ones rub her back and shoulders or stroke her hands and fingers to calm and soothe her.

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Due to Haley's inability to converse, she is unable to participate in some class activities. Haley completes independent motor skills and problem solving activities to help her learn to communicate socially and intellectually.

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Gina Stafford and Haley wash mirrors at the Paducah Cooperative Ministry. Haley volunteers at the ministry to work on her social and communication skills that may enable her to work someday.

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Haley and her father, Jeffery Smith, laugh together after being reunited after a two-week separation. Her father lives in Indiana and is unable to visit her as much as he would like. The pair are incredibly close and enjoy what little time they have together.

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Jeffery strokes his daughter's hair as she falls asleep on his lap after a long day at school. "Haley has always been a daddy's girl. You can easily tell who the favorite is when he's around," her grandmother, Nora, says.

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Nora talks about how difficult it can be to raise Haley. "She has her good days and her bad days," she says. "She is just an experience. You just have to experience Haley."