ABLE Academy student finds her voice and rings the miracle bell

Friends of ABLE Academy know that close to the entrance of the facility hangs a large brass bell. The team of professionals and children at the nonprofit organization that helps children and young adults with developmental disabilities and behavior disorders call it the miracle bell.

Behind the bell hangs a clipboard on which staff record the miracle each time the bell is rung. The miracle bell log offers the subtle reminder, “From difficulty comes miracles.”

Since opening the doors of the new facility in August 2010, the celebratory sound of the bell has filled the halls a conservative three times.

Every day at ABLE Academy, great things happen. Children learn new signs, say their first words, read for the first time, learn to drink from a “big kid” cup, go to the bathroom independently or finally share their favorite toy with a friend. But the miracle bell is reserved for the amazing moments, the landmark accomplishments, the life changing events.

Monday, June 20, was a miracle bell day. The morning started like any other at ABLE Academy; behavior analysts meeting with their teams for case reviews and readying their environments for the day.

When morning car line started, clinical classroom students hopped out of their cars ready to begin their day. On this morning, a few extra cars waited in car line. Early campers joined us just a week earlier. Six new children in all, two of them best friends. Ciara Merino, 11, and Max Hatch, 13, are new to ABLE Academy, but they certainly aren’t new to one another. They’ve been friends for years. Like a little married couple, they walk together, select the same games to play and eat lunch sitting next to each other.

This bond is a special one. Ciara has a disorder that blocks the expressive language part of her brain from developing. She has an augmentative communication device. It’s big and clunky and its many screens of picture after picture to help Ciara communicate.

There’s just one problem. Ciara doesn’t like the device. She has no interest in it at all. She looks at it as if the cartoon pictures are beneath her and she quickly turns it off and pushes it away. She’d rather tap her friend, Max, and raise an eyebrow or make a face.

He will know what she wants and he will stop at nothing to help meet her needs. Ciara uses some sign language, but is limited in her signs. She’s excited that the ABLE staff members use sign and she lights up when she signs. With her limited signs, however, the “conversation” typically falls short.

“It was evident to everyone at ABLE that Ciara had plenty to say, just no way to say it,” said Susan Tant, Ciara’s speech language pathologist. “So, we quickly decided providing Ciara a more robust method of communication would be a priority for instruction. We know how important it is that a child choose their method for communicating if it is going to be effective. It took one question, ‘Ciara, do you want to sign or type?’”

Ciara answered “type” by tapping her fingers on the table.

Tant grabbed her iPad and quickly loaded a typing application with voice output. She placed the iPad in front of Ciara and asked her to type something.

Ciara started with a simple “hi.” As she hit the green play button, a bright and wide smile swept across her face. Next, with three behavior analysts and a speech therapist at her side, the questions started firing.

“What color are you wearing?” they asked her.

Ciara typed “pink.”

“Who is your best friend?”

“Max,” Ciara typed.

“What do you want to tell us?”

“I have a dog.”

“What color is he?”


“What is his name,” we asked.

Ciara smiles and types, “Max.” Certainly not a coincidence!

After initially using Tant’s iPad, her instructors decided that they could put a recent donation to good use. The organization had just received an unsolicited $2,000 check in the mail from the Naples Doll Club. ABLE Academy deposited the money, and then used $500 of it to buy Ciara her own iPad.

When the Doll Club’s Dot Hagman heard how their money was used, she was overjoyed.

“We are all so happy that the money is going to good use,” she said.

The Naples Doll Club has their annual doll show and sale scheduled for Jan. 20 and 21. It will be held at the Moorings Presbyterian Church. Their website is All of their proceeds go to local children’s charities.

“In five minutes, after 11 years of limited communication, the world has opened up to Ciara,” said Kim Raiser, a behavior analyst and Ciara’s direct instructor. “She can make choices, answer questions, and most importantly, tell the rest of the world what she needs and what she thinks. She’s in control now and she has her own voice.

“She may always choose to sit next to Max, but she doesn’t have to borrow his voice anymore.”

ABLE Academy is a nonprofit organization providing assessment, training and intensive one-on-one and small group applied behavior analysis, speech therapy and schooling for children ages 2-22 with developmental disabilities and behavior disorders. Caregiver training and outreach services are also provided. The ABLE Academy team is comprised of behavior analysts, teachers, clinicians and a speech-language pathologist. The founders of ABLE Academy have practiced behavior analysis in Collier and Lee counties for more than 15 years. For more information, please call (239) 352-7600 or visit

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Dr. Colleen Cornwall is a native of Naples and is the founder of ABLE Academy.

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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