Grace Falleur sits towards the front of her math class. Her teacher is deep in a lesson on complex quadratic problems, yet Grace doesn’t seem interested. She sways back and forth in her chair and sings to herself about Disney’s Chip and Dale. Then, less than a minute after the instructor has presented the question to the class, Grace blurts out the correct answer, having done all the math in her head.
Grace has autism, is non-verbal, and struggles to control her motor function. She often has difficulty saying exactly what she means to say or doing exactly what she wants to do, which can result in others misunderstanding her intelligence. But Grace is here to prove that despite what others may perceive from the outside, it’s not a true representation of what she knows and what her aspirations are.
For the past few years, Grace has been attending Invictus Academy, a specialty school for non-verbal students with autism. It was here that she learned to communicate by using a spelling board. “She was hungry for communication,” said Grace’s mother Angela Falleur. “I knew there was more in there that wasn’t getting out.”
As Grace has what her therapist describes as “unreliable speech,” the spelling board allows her to point out letters and spell out her sentences with the help of an aide to put it all together. This form of communication can be very laborious for Grace, as she can’t fully control her motor skills and will sometimes need to be redirected when she becomes distracted.
At the start of the pandemic, Invictus moved to remote online learning. This was when her parents noticed that Grace wasn’t being challenged academically. “I knew I was smarter than anyone knew,” said Grace through the help of her spelling board. Though her parents were hesitant about integrating her into the public school system, they decided that the online setting would strike the best balance between academic rigor and parental supervision.
After showing success with the online courses, Mitchell High School invited Grace to be evaluated for in-person learning. “That for us was just icing on the cake, that they were willing to have her in class on campus,” said Grace’s mom. Grace needed to undergo evaluations, in-depth questioning from teachers, and in-person assessments to determine if in-person learning was right for her. Grace’s use of the spelling board is a somewhat controversial form of communication, particularly because the person using the board isn’t the one actually speaking.
Though Grace and her family were understanding of the process, Grace’s mom was adamant that Grace get credit for her own knowledge. “My child is smarter than me and knows things I do not know,” Falleur explained. “I couldn’t facilitate and give her words or answers for physics or algebra if I tried. You can check my school transcripts on that one.”
As part of the final evaluation, Grace needed to sit through a full math lesson. Melissa Musselwhite, director of Pasco County’s student services department, sat in on this lesson and watched as Grace completed the complex problem in her head within seconds. Though Grace appeared to be off task in the moment, she was using strategies such as doodling or swaying in her seat to keep her body preoccupied so her mind could focus on solving the problem. “I have never seen anybody like this before,” marvelled Musselwhite.
Grace was immediately invited to attend all her classes on campus, but it was agreed that she would learn better with a balanced schedule of three in-person classes and three online classes. Principal Jessica Schultz ensured all of Grace’s teachers met Grace ahead of time and were aware of the learning challenges she faces. “Grace is fascinating,” Schultz said. “She is very intelligent and very capable.”
Grace has been very successful in her classes since her enrollment. “Never have I been able to see a student do math in her head so quick,” said Grace’s math teacher Jessi Struble. “I can ask her a process, and she can explain the procedures. That tells me she understands it.”
Grace even created and presented a video about herself and her dreams to her classmates, to better help them understand her motivations and struggles.
Grace earned almost all A’s her first semester and dreams of studying internal medicine at Harvard. If you’d like to keep up with Grace and her educational journey, be sure to check out her Instagram!Whizzco