FARMINGTON - Empowering students with special needs is about meeting each student where they are with their social and emotional development.

Mary Willman, a special education teacher at Boeckman Middle School in Farmington, said her passion is teaching teenagers with special needs on the autism spectrum disorder.

New arts classes have brought an energy to her students' learning and Willman said students light up when they take part in the interactive arts curriculum.

Upstream Arts out of Minneapolis travels to schools to deploy the power of creative arts to activate and amplify the voice and choice of individuals with special needs and disabilities. Artists began coming weekly to the middle school in February and will continue until the first week of May to give students 12 sessions that teach social skills curriculum.

"It brings an additional level of communication and social and emotional growth," Willman said. "They get the choice to participate or not and by doing that, it actually gives them permission to express themselves."

Teachers said they are grateful for the funding provided by the Apple Valley American Legion. Next year, the school will look for funding partners to continue the classes.

Lynn Stone, special education teacher at Boeckman Middle School, works with students who have developmental and cognitive disabilities and said the classes allow teachers to see different sides of students.

"It is bringing out so much more in the students than we would ever expect in an arena that is all about their imaginations and feelings. You are getting in touch with that and they are not afraid to share it," Stone said. "The way they are so inclusive of everybody and they meet the students where they are at and include them, even if the student is not sure about wanting to try."

Since art can touch us in an emotional way, it can also bring understanding, acceptance and happiness, Willman said.

The students have been able to express themselves with painting, poetry and have created stories while working on social skills and conversation leads since a few of the students have limited verbal skills.

"We ask the students to finish a sentence and tell us how they are feeling today," Willman said. "Last week we put shapes on the carpet with blue tape and we played music and the students walked fast or slow. They kept adding more so students could function at different rates of speed," Willman said.

In this lesson, students learned how to follow directions in a fun, interactive and almost whimsical way.

"It is so rewarding for us as teachers to see the students take part in something that you wouldn't think would be impactful," Willman added.