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Communication Breakdown

The Boulder Valley School District has a hard time learning how to teach kids with special needs.

It's early in July 1997, and Jack has just turned three. He doesn't talk. He doesn't respond to directions. He can't sit still for fifteen minutes. He shuns everyone around him, including his parents. On the rare occasion that his dad is able to make eye contact with him, Jack just stares back blankly; it's as though he's looking through glass.

Jack is wandering around his private preschool in Boulder, trying to get as far away from his classmates and teacher as he can. His teacher pursues him, hoping to get his attention. But Jack wants to be left alone. He finds a table and chair in another room and sits down with a book, flipping aimlessly through its pages. He likes chewing on paper and tearing pages to bits; by the time he leaves the preschool six weeks later, he will have destroyed about a dozen books. Jack has autism and Williams Syndrome, two developmental disabilities that rarely occur together.

Jack finds an easel and begins painting, leading his brush in a devil-may-care manner across the blank paper. His teacher sees this as an opportunity to interact with him and tries to help him hold the paintbrush correctly. But Jack crouches down and escapes through the arch that his teacher's arm has formed between her body and the easel. He walks away again to be by himself. This time his teacher doesn't follow.

Star pupil: Jack spends more than forty hours a week learning everything from daily tasks to vocabulary words.
Star pupil: Jack spends more than forty hours a week learning everything from daily tasks to vocabulary words.
Star pupil: Jack spends more than forty hours a week learning everything from daily tasks to vocabulary words.
Star pupil: Jack spends more than forty hours a week learning everything from daily tasks to vocabulary words.

August 21, 1997. Jack is sitting at a table in the basement of his house, his gaze never leaving the tutor beside him. She is teaching him to imitate her actions. She claps her hands together and tells him to do the same. He does. "Good job, Jack!" she cheers. He smiles, proud of himself. She tells him to put his hands to his ears. He does. She taps the desk and instructs him to do the same. He does. He laughs.

December 2, 1997. A baby's bottle, an Elmo figurine and a miniature Big Bird are lined up on the table in front of Jack. The tutor points to Elmo and says the toy's name. Jack repeats "Elmo" after her. She says "Big Bird," and he hands her the Sesame Street character. She replaces Elmo with a spoon and asks what is different now. He picks up the spoon. The tutor shows Jack a photo of his father. Jack turns to face the video camera, smiling at the man behind it. "Who is this?" the tutor asks. Jack tries, but he can't quite say "Daddy" yet.

Spring and summer, 1998. Vignettes of Jack's lessons are strung together in a triumphal last video. In the first few frames, Jack's tutor asks him to show her what he uses to drink. He picks up a cup from a table topped with assorted objects. "Drink," he says. His tutor gives him a high five, then picks up a plastic strawberry and asks what's missing from the table. Jack answers correctly. Another high five. On another day, Jack is learning prepositions and the relationship between objects. His tutor directs him to place the plastic strawberry between a cigar box and a cup. No problem. Another frame features Jack identifying the word "box" from a line of words and letters; later he places four marbles on a picture of the number four; in still another scene, Jack gladly retrieves a spoon after his tutor asks him to find one in the kitchen.

John Jones, who asked that his real name not be used, cries as he watches the tapes. He sheds tears of sorrow at the memory of the little boy who used to stare right through him and tears of joy for the man he now hopes Jack will become. Exactly what causes autism is still unknown, but it is the result of a neurological affliction and is just one in a series of pervasive developmental disorders ranging from Asperger's Syndrome, which is the least severe, to Rett's Disorder. People who are diagnosed with any one of the several autism spectrum disorders typically have little or no language skills, are socially withdrawn, do not respond when spoken to, and throw tantrums; most of the symptoms show themselves before the age of three. According to Jones, kids with such developmental disorders often can't learn to perform even the most elementary tasks without prompting. Jones and his wife are convinced that their son's progress is due entirely to a behavior-modification technique called Applied Behavior Analysis.

ABA is a broad term that includes a variety of methods for getting through to kids, but the particular kind that was used with Jack is called "discrete trial training." With this technique, a teacher gives a child an instruction ("Jack, put your arms down"), and the child then responds or doesn't; either Jack will keep his arms raised, or he will do as he is told. The third part of the discrete trial method involves the consequence of the child's response. If Jack fails to lower his arms, the teacher will repeat the instruction until he gets it right. When Jack understands, his correct response will be reinforced with a reward -- praise, a hug, a toy, a high five.

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