An "Un-Behavioral" School for Special Students
By Anand Vishnav, Sunday Boston Globe
It's tucked away on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain, a red-brick, Federal style building that many passers-by probably mistake for a run-of-the-mill school.
But the Language and Cognitive Development Center is no ordinary school.
The year-round school exclusively serves children with autism or other developmental disorders using an innovative method that channels their sometimes erratic behavior into something constructive. The technique is known as the Miller Method, named for the school's founder and executive director, Arnold Miller.
The center isn't very well-known outside of the local special-education community. But it celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and is growing every month with the help of the Internet and videoconferencing – enabling Miller and his wife, Eileen, to assist teachers as far away as Egypt.
"We're struck and delighted with the way our work is starting to find itself in other countries and other states," said Miller, 74, a psychologist who started the school as part of his private practice in 1965. "We put our efforts into building a strategy that would bring the kids alive."
Autism is a developmental disorder in which children display strange behavior that indicates a difficulty in the way their brains process information. They become hyperactive, then stone-silent. Often their speech is limited, and they have problems making eye contact with others. There is no known cause or cure for autism, but evidence suggests that genetics have some impact. Signs of autism typically appear in the first three years of life – and many times, they frighten the parents who have no idea why their child is acting so erratically.
The Miller Method is a "developmentally oriented" philosophy to educate autistic children, as opposed to "behavior oriented" programs. In a nutshell, that means that teachers find a basis for children's actions- including possible misbehavior – and look for ways to turn it into positive behavior. Paul Callahan, the LCDC's director of operations, provided an example: If an autistic child throws a ball into a puddle of water, teachers at the LCDC would not immediately restrain him. Rather, they would let him throw the ball a few time – then take the ball and hold it at their eye level, forcing the child to make eye contact if he wants it back. Making eye contact, Callahan said, is something autistic children have trouble doing consistently.
"We're going to see this behavior as containing some seed of more functional behavior," Callahan said. "A behavioral program might want to extinguish it."
While it might seem as if this technique simply encourages autistic children to continue bad behavior, Callahan said that is not the case. Constructing meaningful behavior out of erratic actions is key to the school's philosophy. Once that's achieved, teachers try to expand it so that students don't get stuck in a rigid pattern that they can't adapt to changing situations.
"We will construct something more functional out of it, " Callahan said.
The center, housed since 1977 in a former Boston public school building, serves children ages 3 to 14 on a year-round calendar. Tuition is steep, about $33,000 a year. But Massachusetts students generally don't pay tuition because they are referred to the school from public school districts that cannot serve them. Those districts, under law, have to pay for the student's education.
About 25 students attend the school, which has a maximum enrollment of 40. While students can stay until they are 14, the school encourages them to re-enter public schools when they are ready.
"People think autistic kids grow up and keep a lot of their deficits. But they can be very productive members of the community," said Rebecca Vincent, a speech therapist at LCDC. "They can go pretty far and have careers and pursue higher-education degrees. Or they can work at Stop & Shop and do a great job of working at Stop & Shop."
Parents at the school said they appreciate the center's openness and patience with their autistic children. Kathy, a mother who did not want her last name used, said her 9 year old son, Kyle, has experienced a dramatic turnaround since coming to the school a year ago. One sign is that Kyle has been able to help his parents with household and outdoor activities – things he was too hyper to do before, Kathy said.
"Here they do more movement, which is what he needs rather than flashcards," she said. "He's helping. He's doing things."
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