Center's founder, now 84, recalls a life devoted to autistic children

August 03, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

It was the anguish in the mothers' eyes that prompted Jean Simons to open the Linwood Children's Center in Ellicott City for autistic youngsters in 1955.

"I saw the concern in these mothers' faces for their children and I knew they cared and that someone else needed to care," said Miss Simons, who previously worked as a therapist for psychotic children in Washington, D.C.

"I started the school for the mothers; I never gave it a thought that something could be done with the children."

Thirty-nine years later, the Linwood Children's Center Inc. is still operating and Miss Simons -- now 84 and a respected authority on autism -- still is in touch with many of her former charges, some of whom have jobs and live successfully in their communities.

Miss Simons, a consultant and author of the 1987 book "The Hidden Child," also lectures and attends conferences, teaches and gives seminars on aspects of autism.

After World War II, she earned a bachelor's degree in social work at Boston College Hill in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

She later got a master's degree in childhood education in the Netherlands, where she grew up, and did postgraduate work in child development at the University of Maryland.

At the time Miss Simons started the center -- on an estate on Church Road known as Linwood Farms -- she had no money and little was known about the children's strange behavior that "could ruin a family."

But she knew she had found her life's purpose after working with a colleague's 13-year-old son who had been institutionalized at a time when autism was not being diagnosed.

"It fell in my lap," she said. "Somebody had to do something. There was no help for the mothers; I was the first one who didn't blame them."

Undaunted by professional colleagues who felt she risked her career by delving into a relatively unknown field, Miss Simons moved into the 14-room mansion where she cooked, cleaned and lugged coal for heat.

The building did not have central heating, the roof leaked and water was drawn from a well. Her only employees were a bus driver, who transported the children, and an assistant.

However, she worked daily with 11 "nontalking" children between the ages of 3 and 5 who attended the center from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The tuition was charged to the parents, but sometimes they could not pay or paid only what they could afford.

In order to run the facility, Miss Simons earned money as a therapist at the nearby Taylor Manor Hospital, relying on her salary and donations to help get the school started.

The center eventually became a live-in facility.

During the first year, Miss Simons watched the children "change," rather than "progress."

"These children cannot accept love in the same way that everyone else does," said Miss Simons, a Columbia resident. "They demand things. They don't give, they take. It's never a two-way relationship, but you can develop a trust."

That trust was obtained through acceptance and understanding, which Miss Simons said is "very difficult because it goes against everything people have experienced or understood."

For example, she said autistic children are emotionally very different, want to be alone, are compulsive, have no eye contact, desire "sameness" in various situations, are literal and lack concepts and imagination.

Though the children can be "strongly intelligent in certain areas," they fail "totally" socially.

Despite the difficulty of working with autistic children, Miss Simons learned from them.

"I have a good sense of objective observation," she said. "I never compared them with anyone else and I slowly started to get an understanding of these children and they showed me the way. . . . I have been very patient for years waiting for everything to fall in place."

Miss Simons stresses the importance of a "highly individualized approach" because each child is different.

"There are so many different theories and some people want them to apply to all of the children," she said. "All of the theories may apply at certain times to certain children. But a one-theory-for-all-children, no."

Though Miss Simons said there is more understanding about autism today, "very few of these people [professionals in the field] have lived, eaten and kept close contact with children who have grown into adulthood."

For this reason, she continues to share her knowledge.

Twice a year she visits the University of Mexico, where she has an honorary doctorate and serves as an adviser at a center there for autistic children.

She recently returned from a weeklong stay in Cuba, where she attended an international health conference and was interviewed on television.

Miss Simons described the experience as "mind-boggling" because the people "rose above" their frugal existence. "I cannot forget some of the handicapped children and the singing they did during a special education convention," she said.

Nor will she ever forget the youngsters with whomshe has spent a lifetime learning to understand.

"When I saw these [autistic] children, I said to myself, 'This is it, this is my life.' "

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