Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Beyond ‘Rain Man’
Alumna’s new school will alleviate autism’s effects
By Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
At the end of the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character, Raymond, is returned to the institution where he’s lived most of his life.

The movie, says Jenny Jordan Bar Yaacov ’79, is a moving and accurate portrayal of an individual with autism.

But her profound and personal experience with this developmental disability leaves her, at the end of the movie, with a practical question: Why doesn’t Raymond have a job?

“All children with autism can be educated,” Bar Yaacov says. “They can grow up to have jobs. They can contribute.”

A determined and articulate woman, Bar Yaacov has become something of an expert on autism. By profession, she is a systems-development project manager for TIAA-CREF, but she also has three children, and her two youngest—5-year-old identical twin boys—are autistic.

“This is all about the right kind of education at the right time. And, unfortunately, the right services are almost impossible to come by.”

Not one to sit back and tolerate such frustration, Bar Yaacov and an impressive team of parents and educators, in affiliation with the Princeton Child Development Institute, are creating the Garden Academy, a school in Essex County, N.J., for children across the autistic spectrum.

Autism is defined as a developmental disability characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in social-interaction skills, communication skills or the presence of stereotyped behavior, interest and activities.

In real terms, these impairments create deficits in fundamental skills needed for learning. And the methods used to teach typical children—those without autism—don’t work.

For example, most children learn by imitating. You make a sound; your baby makes a sound. You point to a box of Cheerios and smile, and your wobbly toddler points and smiles, too, letting you know that a dish of those little oaty-o’s is exactly what he’s after.

In these simple moments, your child is performing a subtle but complicated learning function.

But what if those skills are unavailable to a child?

Bar Yaacov says children with autism—which manifests itself in many different ways—are generally not interested in imitating. They have serious trouble with language, and they often ignore other children because they don’t know how to play. They will, however, engage in repetitive behaviors that they find fascinating.

“One of my sons will pick grass and rub it between his hands—for hours,” she says. And when he was 3, one of her sons banged his head—against the floor, the wall, the counter, his mother—119 times in one weekend.

Bar Yaacov says these examples are on the list of profound reasons why an intensive education system called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is necessary and why there is a real need for schools, like the one she is helping to found, that are equipped to deal with the challenges faced by autistic children.

“One of my sons was a head-banger,” she says matter-of-factly about the behavior that is fairly common among children with autism, “but he stopped that, because ABA taught him better things to do.”

Before her children began receiving ABA-based education, communication was all but impossible.

When her kids were screaming, and she thought they were thirsty, she would drag out one beverage at a time, and they would continue screaming until she finally pulled out the drink they wanted.

But ABA instruction, wherein actions are broken into the smallest steps, and fractional gains are painstakingly repeated and rewarded, taught her son how to point.

“At the end of the second week [of ABA education], my husband was eating an Oreo cookie,” Bar Yaacov says, “and my son, Jesse, pointed directly at the cookie. It was a stunning moment for us, since it was the first time that our child had ever indicated to us what he wanted in such a direct manner.”

The Garden Academy, which Bar Yaacov hopes will open its doors by this fall, will provide ABA-based education and services for children from 3 to 21.

It’s an incredibly expensive undertaking, with each child working with one instructor in individualized learning programs. But, Bar Yaacov says, the payoff is equally incredible.

“Some children who receive ABA will go to college and, perhaps, marry and become parents. No one will know that they were once diagnosed with autism. Others will always need extra support. But all children will do better with ABA,” she says.

The former Russian major, who credits her liberal-arts education with teaching her how to learn, says that her children also will learn how to learn.

“My kids will read and write. They will have jobs. And yet, for most parents across the country, there is very little help. There are no services—or barely adequate services. My children are more fortunate than most. Our school will show what can be done, what has been done. It will act as a role model, creating demand that will create the supply.” •

For more information, go to: www.gardenacademy.org

 


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