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.
|Jenny Jordan Bar Yaacov describes her twin sons, Nat and Jesse, as deeply affectionate.
Their diagnosis of autism started her down a path that, she hopes, will change the lives
of her own children—and others’.
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
“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.”
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.
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
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
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.
simple moments, your child is performing a subtle but complicated learning function.
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.
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
“At the end of the second week [of ABA education], my husband was eating an Oreo
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.
an incredibly expensive undertaking, with each child working with one instructor in individualized
learning programs. But, Bar Yaacov says, the payoff is equally incredible.
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.
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.” •
more information, go to: www.gardenacademy.org