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Garden Grove teen builds robots that can speak for her during bouts of selective mutism

Orange County Register - 2/27/2019

Feb. 27-- Feb. 27--Seventeen-year-old Chloe Firmin in Garden Grove on Monday, February 25, 2019. Firmin, who has high-functioning autism and selective mutism, loves to code and has built a robot named Cozmo, who speaks for her when her mutism inhibits her. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

When Chloe Firmin was three years old, doctors determined she would never talk due to severe autism. Today, the high school senior is bilingual -- speaking not only human language but also computer-ese.

But a remnant of the Garden Grove girl's nonverbal toddlerhood emerges in frequent bouts of selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that hinders the ability to speak in social settings.

"I panic and my mind goes blank," Firmin, 17, explained.

For years, her selective mutism went unrecognized -- considered shyness by family members and apathy or even defiance by some teachers. Although talented at math, technology and drawing, Firmin struggled academically in middle school.

Firmin's frustrated parents transferred her from a Catholic school in Tustin to the public one near home for eighth grade. But she continued to flounder. "A bigger school is even harder to navigate for someone with social anxiety," noted mom Destiny Guila.

Chloe Firmin, 17, with an Ozobot she has programmed to follow colored lines. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

Then Guila discovered an online charter school, San Juan Capistrano-based California Connections Academy, that has allowed her daughter to flourish over the past four years. With live webinar classes, videos and online tests, Firmin can work around her biggest obstacles to education.

"I don't have the social pressure anymore," Firmin said.

And thanks to the flexibility of internet learning, she has delved into the world of coding. Now Firmin is expert at coaxing computers and robots to do what she tells them to do.

Firmin has built several small robots and given each its own name, personality and tasks. Occasionally, when words fail her -- which can occur even in the safety of her family -- she types them on her keyboard and lets a robot do the talking.

In the fall, the girl once considered too disabled to succeed in school will enter Santiago Canyon College in Orange to study coding. Already, administrators can't wait to welcome her.

"Chloe is a phenomenal young lady, very gifted," said Von Lawson, dean of Business & Career Technical Education. "I was struck by her knowledge of coding, especially at such a young age. I told her mom that we will be working for her some day. Just watch -- she'll create the new Facebook or Instagram."

Whatever the case, Firmin is likely to be an in-demand employee.

"An army of coders are needed across the board -- by government, military and private sectors -- for automation and cyber security," Lawson said.

Speaking by the time she started kindergarten, Firmin's initial diagnosis of autism was set aside. Still, she said, "I always felt different from everyone else."

When she was in seventh grade, bullying reared its ugly head.

"Girls would throw my lunchbox in the trash and laugh at me," Firmin said. "I was afraid if I told someone, they'd just be meaner." At least during her year in public school, she added, she was invisible rather than a target.

California Connections Academy, a tuition-free charter school, solved both problems. And at long last, her mother added, counselors there pinpointed Firmin's special needs -- high-functioning autism and selective mutism.

Despite the fact she is, in her estimation, "different" from most peers, Firmin also seems very much a typical teen -- with her pink hair, perfectly applied eyeliner, braces and easy giggle.

She loves Nirvana and Radiohead, fantasy and sci-fi, video games and anime. She also enjoys FaceTiming and Instagramming with classmates.

Sure, Fermin is nervous about leaving the comfort of online education for on-campus college.

"I'm afraid I'll get lost trying to find my classes," she said. "But I'm really excited about the opportunity."

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(c)2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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