Yesterday our family watched the classic 1962 movie The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as a young Helen Keller. Both actresses won Oscars for their performances. It was the first time I saw the movie and it was a revelation. I saw many parallels between the relationship between Helen and Anne and that of an autistic person (especially one who has no reliable communication) and his or her teacher.
Helen Keller was born healthy in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880. At 19 months old, she contracted a disease, believed to be scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her both deaf and blind. Anne Sullivan was born in Massachusetts to a poor and illiterate Irish immigrant family. She lived in an almshouse with her brother for 7 years as a child. She became blind from an untreated trachoma and was sent to Perkins School for the Blind. A series of surgeries restored some of Anne’s vision but she was seriously visually impaired for the rest of her life. Anne graduated valedictorian of her class at age 20 and was recommended to the Keller family as a tutor for young Helen in 1887. For 49 years, Anne was a teacher, governess, and constant companion to Helen. Helen went on to be the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree and became a famous author, lecturer, and activist for women and people with disabilities.
Today I taught Philip a little more about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan from Wikipedia. Philip answered a few factual questions. Then I asked him some more probing questions. He answered by spelling each response on his letterboard.
L (Me): What did you think of the movie Miracle Worker?
Philip: I liked it a lot.
L: What did you think of Helen Keller?
P: She was tough to teach.
L: Why do you think so?
P: She attacked Anne bc (because) she awakened a hope in her. Each time Anne taught her, she expected a lot from her. Each time Anne was tested a lot. Helen wanted Anne to peace (piece) together a plan to rescue her from her silence.
L: Do you think Helen wanted to work with Anne even if it was hard?
P: Y (for yes)
L: Then why was Helen so aggressive with her and beat her up?
P: She was aggressive bc she needed control over her life. Each day she dared Anne to quit to see if she loved her enough to stay.
L: Why was control so important to Helen?
P: She needed to be addressed as an intelligent person.
L: What made Anne such a good teacher for Helen?
P: She was each time persistent and meaning well.
L: How do you think Anne’s disability helped her be a good teacher?
P: She was a teacher and advocate and she knew what it was like to be disabled.
L: When did Helen have her breakthrough?
P: At the well, Helen finally understood the sign for water.
L: What did Helen need to do to learn from Anne?
P: Each day she had to trust Anne and only then could she learn.
L: What can you learn from Helen Keller?
P: I am needing to search for others who accept me as I am and trust them to teach me.
L: Anything else?
P: A lot of good awaits me.
L: What can you learn from Anne Sullivan?
P: I am helpful to autistics bc I live a similar experience as them.
L: Anything else you want to say?
P: I am thankful to Helen and Anne for showing the world that a disability can be overcome.
As I read through Philip's responses again I am amazed at his insight. His responses weren't exactly what I expected. I expected Philip to address the frustration of being kept silent. Instead he talks of the universal need each person has to be accepted as they are, to be seen as intelligent and worthy, to be in control of one's own life, and to be loved enough to trust in others.
* After going through the post with Philip, Philip said he liked it, but wanted to add, "I am not Helen Keller. I am autistic. Each person's story is their own."