One word could be used to sum up how 10-year-old Karl Bulatao has progressed in the classroom: Awesome.
It’s not just a word that assesses his improvement. It’s a word Bulatao, a Grade 5 student at École Riverbend Community School, uses to describe how he feels about winning the Yes I Can Award, a prize handed out by the Manitoba Council for Exceptional Children to special needs students in recognition of the strides they make in class.
Bulatao won the Yes I Can award in the academic category.
Bulatao is autistic and, like many people diagnosed with the spectrum disorder, he has faced difficulties identifying emotions and expressing his feelings. His choice of the word "awesome" represents just how much progress he’s made in recent years.
"Seeing Karl over the last two years, he truly has made exceptional progress," said his teacher, Madeleine Kettner.
"The fact you could ask him ‘how do you feel about it’ and he says ‘awesome,’ he wouldn’t have had an understanding of how to do that before."
Educational assistant Elaine Paradis, who has been working with Bulatao for the last year, also had high praise for her student.
"Karl is an amazing young fellow. He’s worked really hard this year," Paradis said.
Kettner said many autistic students tend to be visual learners, but it’s especially true for Bulatao, for whom art has been a bridge which helps him communicate.
Kettner said Bulatao demonstrated great understanding of the day’s lessons after they gave him a paper and pencil to draw with during the class’s discussions.
"His drawing has been a window to show how much he is connecting with things around him," Kettner said.
"He would start illustrating the discussions we were having and the books we were reading. It’s a strong communication tool."
For example, a discussion on the Idle No More movement produced images of Great Britain and the image of a crown. Another time, he drew out the food chain during a discussion on the subject.
Talk to any of his classmates and you’ll hear them mention Bulatao’s artistic talent. Kettner said the students tend to look at him as the benchmark for great art in class.
"Art is my favourite thing . . . I like to draw movie characters," Bulatao said, adding James Bond is his favourite.
Classmate Nick Mckay, who met Karl after transferring to the school two years ago, said his peer played a big role in getting him involved in art.
"He was my inspiration to start drawing," Mckay said.
"When I saw him, he used to draw cartoon characters . . . I started drawing, I still draw today."
Bulatao’s art is featured all over the classroom. Propped high up in one corner is a totem pole Karl created from scratch by sketching the patterns on an identical pole in the principal’s office, later recreating it’s patterns and style entirely and faithfully.
"He’s a phenomenal visual artist," Kettner said.
Bulatao attended the awards ceremony at the Victoria Inn on Feb. 21. Paradis, Kettner and some of Bulatao’s classmates were able to attend and cheer him on.
"I think it’s really amazing he’s getting this award," said Sara Vandenakker, one of the classmates who attended the awards ceremony.
The class also held a celebration of its own during the school day to celebrate his achievement.
"What’s really special is the way he’s part of a family here," Kettner said of the class.
"He has true friends in class. He’s loved by all the staff."
Bulatao seems to agree. It’s safe to say he likes it just fine at Riverbend.
"School is my favourite part (of the day)," he said.