Autism pioneer looked for children's strengths

Center: A psychiatric social worker opened Linwood, in Ellicott City, in 1955.

April 18, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

They were children considered to be beyond help, destined for a lifetime commitment to a state institution, sedated by morphine injections. They were autistic, but in Jeanne Simons' eyes they deserved better -- a place where they could be helped instead of hidden.

Simons gave them that place in 1955 when she opened the Linwood Children's Center in an old stone mansion perched on a hill above historic Ellicott City. The psychiatric social worker saw beyond the hand-wringing, the temper tantrums and the self-destructive behaviors when she established one of the first educational and therapy programs for autistic children.

"They were beautiful looking; they were different," Simons said in a recent interview.

Now regarded as a pioneer in the field of autism, Simons, 94, lives in a Columbia retirement community about five miles from the renamed Linwood Center, which serves children and adults.

"What Jeanne Simons did is establish a means to work with these kids in a very positive and motivating manner," said Bill Moss, the center's executive director. "She identified the strengths and interests of the kids and built on them, rather than focus on their needs and problems."

With her striking white hair and penetrating blue eyes, Simon's passion for her life's work was apparent as she talked about Linwood's beginnings.

Born in Belgium, she came to the United States just before World War II. She graduated from Boston College with a degree in social work. Later, she earned a master's degree in the Netherlands.

Simons became aware of autism, a neurological disorder that affects functioning of the brain, in the early 1950s when she was working with a diagnostic team at Children's House, a treatment center in Washington for emotionally disturbed children. She noticed that some children engaged in unusual behaviors. They didn't speak, exhibited compulsive mannerisms such as hand flapping, and seemed to be in their own world.

At the center, Simons met a woman whose 11-year-old son, Lee, had lived in private institutions for seven years. He went home on weekends, but his mother said that the visits had become too difficult and that she needed help.

Simons described her first meeting with Lee in her 1987 book, The Hidden Child, written with Sabine Oishi and Bertram A. Ruttenburg.

She wrote that the boy clutched a key chain, paced the floor and didn't seem to know that others were in the room. From time to time, Simons said, `Lee, we are talking about you.' "

She agreed to work with Lee. The boy and his mother left but returned seconds later.

"He didn't look at me, but just stood there, clawing at his face," she wrote. "I put my hand on his head and said, `Try to show me what upsets you.' "

"He kissed me and mumbled, `I want you to be my mother.' I replied, `I will try to be a good friend to you, Lee.' "

Simons worked intensively with the boy for a year. An early challenge involved Lee's nighttime ritual of going to bed with about 20 objects, including a key chain, beads, small toys and old teddy bears. If a single object was missing, Lee threw a tantrum, screaming and banging his head.

A few times, Simons found herself searching frantically for a lost item to calm the distraught boy. She became determined to stop or change the ritual.

One morning, she lined up Lee's objects on his dresser, and told him that he was responsible for them. At first, she helped Lee collect and organize his objects, but gradually he did it on his own. Over time, Simons worked with him to cut down on his collection.

The small triumphs inspired her.

"I saw he could change," Simons said. "And if you could change, you could make progress."

After the year with Lee, she made it her mission to help more children with autism.

A long search led her to the Linwood estate on Church Road, an antiquated property that lacked central heating and had multiple roof leaks. Simons put down $500 on the house and in 1955 moved in with a staff of two, according to her book.

Simons cleaned, cooked and shoveled coal into stoves to heat the three-story home. When her assistants left for the day, she spent nights alone in the house. Until she could afford to hire a night staff, she slept on a cot at the bottom of the stairs to make sure the children couldn't leave the house, she said.

To understand the children, Simons watched and listened to them. She wanted to understand their compulsions and rituals, their likes and dislikes, and what triggered tantrums or other disturbing behaviors.

"I followed the child, and the method developed from there," she said. The information obtained through patient observation laid the foundation for the work to come.

"She was one of those natural, intuitive teachers; she just knew what to do," said Ruth Christ Sullivan, director of the Autism Services Center in Huntington, W.Va. Sullivan, whose 43-year-old son was the model for the movie Rain Man, first heard of Simons in the late 1960s.

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