Dorry Schalk Brown ’65, a wide-eyed, youthful grandmother, sits on the floor of a large, airy classroom at Boston’s Emerson College. She sings in her clear, alto voice: “Oh, five kids came to group today.” Around her, a group of toddlers squirm and clap their hands in unison. Then, as the song nears its finish, they shoot their arms into the air, wave them, and belt out “hip, hip, hooray!”
You wouldn’t know it by watching them, but the children—who range in age from 2 to 5—in Brown’s program have communication and social disorders. Many are on the autism spectrum or have other neurological challenges that prevent them from easily engaging with their parents and peers. Encouraging these children to sing and participate in group activities helps them develop their language, communication, and social skills. It’s also the cornerstone of a unique program that Brown, an early childhood specialist, started thirty-five years ago. The Group Language Therapy Program, which was originally housed at Children’s Hospital Boston, aims to provide children with an intensive language-learning experience in a classroom setting. Each class is designed to help young children understand—and use—gestures, pictures, and words. Brown’s program is distinguished by its ratio of five children to six clinicians and by the fact that it accepts children as young as 2. This is crucial, because, as experts agree, children with autism and other developmental disorders benefit greatly from early intervention.
As more and more children are diagnosed with autism the need for programs like Brown’s is growing. About 1 percent of children in the United States are on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association notes that nearly 1.5 million children receive services for speech and language disorders, and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that roughly 5 percent of children have noticeable speech disorders.
Brown, a music major at Smith who played violin in the College Orchestra, performed with the Glee Club, and later sang with the New York Oratorio Society, spends more than a quarter of each class singing with her students. Children—and especially children with autism—respond to the melody, rhythm, and repetition of music, making it an effective way to engage them and teach them specific language and social skills, she says. While singing, she often holds up pictures to help her students better understand the meaning of the words. She also encourages her students to interact with one another while they’re singing, showing a picture of the song they’ve chosen to their peers, for example, or imitating one another’s actions, such as clapping.
So far, Brown’s approach has helped hundreds of children. Parents praise her for “helping children find their words.” Melanie, whose 2-year-old son, Jake, attends Brown’s class and says Brown knows her son “as well as I do or better” and has an “innate ability” to engage kids. “She picks up on their quirks and strengths and works with them,” says Melanie, who like other mothers interviewed for this story requested that her last name not be used. Meaghen, whose daughter Gabriella also attends Brown’s program, says Brown has an “unbelievable ability to gain respect from 2-year-olds. It’s almost like unconditional love she has for these kids.”
Brown, it seems, was destined to help the underdog. As a child growing up in Northampton, she had a picture in her bedroom that depicted a race among frogs riding on swans, some of which were about to cross the finish line. “I’d lie there looking at the picture and hoping the little one in the back was going to win,” she says. Later, at Smith, she was a self-described peacenik who, among other protests, marched against former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s visit to the campus in the 1960s.
After graduating from college, she was unsure about what to do. An experienced camp counselor and babysitter who grew up in a family of teachers (her father, Marshall Schalk, was a well-loved geology professor at Smith, and her mother and grandfather taught art and piano, respectively), she decided to work for the national service program VISTA in 1965. For two years, she taught piano and Suzuki violin to children in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then applied to graduate school at Tufts University, where she hoped to combine her two passions, music and working with children.
After earning her degree in child development, she was hired by Children’s Hospital Boston to start a group program for children with communication problems. She also served on one of the hospital’s diagnostics teams, evaluating children with cognitive and social disorders.
Thirty-six years and hundreds of preschoolers later, Brown is still singing Raffi, Pete Seeger, and her own made-up songs with the enthusiasm of a first-year teacher.
Back in the classroom, Brown calls on “George,” a 2-year-old blond, to pick the first song. From a board with pictures of various songs, he chooses “Whoa, Back.” Brown takes out a circular rope and instructs the preschoolers to grab ahold. “Pretend you’re riding on a horse, and these are your reins,” she says. “Hold on tight.” Then, turning to George, she tells him to pick a sound.
“Ba,” he says. Led by Brown, the children pretend they’re holding a horse while they sing to the tune of The Lone Ranger theme song. Their voices blend into a chorus of “baa ba ba baa, ba ba baa, baa, baa. Ba ba baa, ba ba baa, ba ba baa, baa, baa.” Pulling back on the rope, the children yell, “WHOA, BACK! WHOA, BACK!” and collapse into giggles.
The purpose of songs like this, Brown says, is to motivate children to produce simple sounds and interact with one another. Whether encouraging the children to sing, hold hands and dance, jump on a trampoline, or pretend to go fishing, Brown says her goal is to create a fun environment in which children can play with one another and develop their communication skills. Even snack time is used as an opportunity to practice skills such as requesting food and making eye contact.
While her students are her highest priority, Brown also enjoys advising and coaching parents on how to best support their children. To that end, she lets parents observe the class from behind a one-way mirror—something that isn’t possible in most preschool settings. “As the parent of a preschooler who was not developing in the usual ways, I craved that kind of opportunity to observe and learn without disrupting the dynamic with my actual presence,” says Maureen, one mother whose child graduated from Brown’s program ten years ago.
For many parents, the experience also provides a chance to bond with other parents whose children face similar challenges. “This program has meant so much to all of us,” says Melanie, Jake’s mother. “Most of the time when you’re out in the real world, you recognize the differences between your child and the so-called norm, and you feel like you stand out like a sore thumb. But not here. I never realized so many people are dealing with the same thing.”
Through the years, Brown has received numerous honors for her leadership in the field, including the Margaret L. Bauman ’60, MD, Award for Excellence in Serving the Autism Community, given by the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Evaluation & Rehabilitation Services (LADDERS) program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Bauman, an autism expert who teaches at Harvard Medical School, says of Brown’s program, “I truly don’t know of any other model quite like this.”
Brown’s most devoted fans, though, are her students. Notes, photographs, and hand-drawn pictures plaster Brown’s office walls. A letter from one of her former students, now 8, hangs on her door: “Dorry, I take karate. I have two stripes on my white belt. I know how to tie my shoes and I am in first grade. I miss you. Heart. Wilder.” Cole, a former student, “couldn’t get out of the car fast enough” to go to Brown’s program, according to his mother, Celeste. And 2-year-old Leah and her mother, Michelle, “say good night to Dorry Brown every night.” Long after they have left Brown’s program, students and parents remain in touch with her, inviting her to bar mitzvahs and high school graduation parties.
With more than forty-five years in the classroom, Brown has no plans to retire. “I cannot get my head around what I would do,” she says. And that’s music to the ears of children and families in her program. To parents of children who may not outgrow their diagnoses, Brown offers lessons of acceptance and hope. “Instead of focusing on the negative, she helps me see the positive and beautiful aspects of my daughter,” one mother, Meaghen, says. “She helps you feel positive about the future for your children.”
Leslie Talmadge is a freelance writer in Cambridge. Her daughter attended Brown’s program for two years.
Spring 2011 SAQ