When Vickey Kinnier's son taught himself to read by the age of 2, it caused anxiety in the family instead of joy. "I knew it was not normal," Mrs. Kinnier said.
Sean Kinnier, now 7, had also begun to "act out," his mother said. He had problems socializing with people and communicating with family members.
So Sean was tested, and what the family learned threw them into an emotional tailspin. Sean was diagnosed as being autistic. His mother, a speech pathologist, was familiar with autism.
"It's absolutely devastating," Mrs. Kinnier said. Autism, she said, is pervasive enough so that it can "affect your whole life to the point of totally shutting it down."
Autism is a neurological disorder that can range from mild to severe, and usually shows up in children around the age of 30 months. The autistic savant -- made famous in the Dustin Hoffman role in the movie "Rain Man" -- is rare, experts on autism say.
Children and adults with autistic tendencies exhibit impaired communications, have restricted interests and are unable to relate in a normal, socially accepted way.
"Impaired communication, behavior and social problems; Sean really had all of those," Mrs. Kinnier said.
Years ago, children who had autism were considered wild and mysterious, according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
These researchers have pioneered a method of educating children with autistic behavior known as TEACCH, which stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-Handicapped Children.
The treatment was developed by educators at the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine at North Carolina in 1972.
The goal of the TEACCH program is to stop unnecessary institutionalization by showing autistic people how to cope in society to the best of their ability.
Trainers from the program were at White Oak Elementary School in Baltimore County recently, running a five-day seminar and workshop for special education teachers on the TEACCH method.
The teachers spent most of their time working with five children with autism or autistic tendencies, including Sean.
A large, carefully arranged classroom was set up in the school where each child had his or her own screened-in work area. "Autistic children are easily distracted. They don't filter anything out," said Mrs. Kinnier, who has studied the subject extensively since her son's diagnosis.
There was also a large screened-in play area and a table set up with snacks.
Ordinary activities, such as opening a juice carton and sticking a straw inside, pasting, sweeping or just pushing toy trucks, became diagnostic tools for the teachers.
Such information is used to determine the child's skills, abilities and interests, said Dr. Marie Bristol, chief trainer with the TEACCH program.
"Part of it is to give the trainees a chance to observe the children, to assess their developmental levels, to assess their interest in other children and in different kinds of food," Dr. Bristol said.
The teachers then can better set educational goals for the child on what they see in addition to what they read in the child's record, she said.
Dr. Bristol thinks it is most important for teachers to find out what the children's emerging skills are. "What the children can almost do," she explained, "those are the things they can build on."
Sean, who was diagnosed as mildly autistic with learning disabilities, was in the play area when his mother came into the room. He said "Hi" before going back to play.
Some people have trouble believing that Sean is autistic because he speaks in a clear voice, Mrs. Kinnier said. Some autistic children, like Sean, have adequate speech capabilities, but are unable to converse with others. Other autistic children don't speak at all.
But autistic characteristics were evident in Sean while he was at play. The five children in the play area all went about playing as if they were in their own private world.
They played with push and pull toys or plastic trucks with not a moment of interaction between them.
"The saddest thing to me is this," said Sandy Hoffman gesturing to the small group of children. "You can put them together in a room with toys and they are each into their own world. It robs them of their childhood," said Ms. Hoffman, a special education teacher at White Oak who was also paid by the TEACCH program to work as a trainer during the seminar.
Jeanne Urlock, a teacher who participated in the TEACCH workshop, said she has learned how to better structure the day for children with autistic tendencies.
"Structuring the day should help delete some of the behavior problems," she said.
Parents take pleasure in seeing the accomplishments of an autistic child as they would in any child, said Ellen Feifarek, the mother of an autistic five-year-old son.
"Seeing Scott do something I believe he would never do, such as speak in a sentence, point to a flower and say 'flower,' enjoy a meal at Friendly's without screaming," brings happiness, she said.
Dr. Feifarek, who is a psychiatrist, had some suggestions for educators who teach autistic children.
"Please get a framework to understand the nature of autism," she said. "Suspend momentarily everything you have learned about all children and normal development, then look at each child individually and ask parents for the things that work and don't work."
Her final request of the teachers was to stay positive. "If the first thing you try doesn't work, don't give up on the child. Keep trying," she said.