Jan. 17, 2003 -- The long journey began with 2-year-old Paul Kotler's devastating diagnosis — autism — a little-understood disorder whose victims live in a world of isolation, unable to communicate or control their body movements.
Before long, Paul's parents realized that they didn't have a way to help him within their community, or even in their state.
"We wanted a full-time speech and language program, but none existed in Pennsylvania," his mother, Melinda Kotler said.
Later, they had a stroke of luck. In the fall of 2001, Kotler met Michael Dinda at a meeting for parents of children with autism, and they had a conversation that would change their lives. Together, they founded the nonprofit TALK Inc.(Teaching Autistic, Apraxic and Severely Language Disordered Children), and then opened the Magnolia Speech School Demonstration Program in Berwyn, Pa., four months ago.
The school's philosophy is that the only truly appropriate program for severely language-disordered children is one that immerses them in language, full-time. The founders say that the communication helps them break through the children's isolation and catch sight of the spark that is inside of them.
The Part That Breaks Your Heart
Before she met Dinda, Melinda Kotler and her husband worked hard on a specialized program in their home, but slowly realized that while Paul was learning, he was not learning to speak. When he turned 6, his parents resolved to find a school that could teach him, and the location didn't matter.
"I went out and did the one-week trial placement, and he was accepted, and that was wonderful," Melinda Kotler said. "But it was very scary to think that we were going to split up the family."
Melinda and Paul Kotler moved across the country to San Francisco. At about the same time, the Dinda family learned that their son, John, had autism.
"To this day I can remember like the out-of-my-body, walking, watching me, John in his little toddler shoes and his blue and white jumpsuit, hand in hand between his mother and father walking down the hall," Michael Dinda said. "And, you know, at that moment that your life is irrevocably changed. The part that breaks your heart is you know that your son's going to have to work harder than anybody else."
First, the Dindas tried intensive home-schooling, and later they made a disastrous attempt at regular first grade. Finally Michael Dinda, a senior vice president at Fleet Bank, took a pay cut so he could focus on his son. If he couldn't find a solution out there, he would create one himself.
"John was coming home frustrated, he was regressing," Dinda recalled. "And I said, 'This is nobody's fault, Maude, but we're going to have to build a school.'"Meanwhile, the Kotlers were also at a crossroads.
"At the end of that fifth year, we decided we just could not live apart as a family anymore," Melinda Kotler said. "And I knew that Paul was far enough along in the program that if I brought him back to Pennsylvania with the idea of starting a school that I could maintain his skills at home while we were starting the school."
A Life-Changing Conversation
Kotler and Dinda met in the fall of 2001 at a meeting for parents of kids with autism, and had a conversation that would change their lives.
She had a curriculum, and he had a knack for raising money and a Rolodex full of wealthy clients. In eight short months, they raised a remarkable $250,000, recruited a highly trained staff, and on Sept. 3, 2002, opened their doors to a class of seven severely language-disordered children, most of them autistic.
"I was elated. I got there, and I looked around, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I finally have my school and I can make sure that these kids have everything they need,'" Kotler recalled.
The need extends far beyond the Philadelphia suburb where the school was founded. In fact, parents across the country have had to do the same thing: create schools for autistic children. But only the Magnolia School has a full-time curriculum teaching spoken language through the Association Method, sound by sound.
The Association Method is phonics-based, and was developed by the late Mildred McGinnis at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis over 50 years ago.
Comfortable in their Own Skin
In addition to language, the school employs something called Sensory Integration Occupational Therapy, which involves buzzing and brushing the skin's surface to interact, and applying deep pressure to calm students down.
The stimulation helps the children feel literally more comfortable in their own skin.The students also participate in "floor time," careful responsive play that teaches the children something that they don't know automatically: how to relate socially with other people.
"If the people that saw him in school last year could see him the way you guys saw him today, it's night and day," Maude Dinda said. "He's a different child. He's entirely different."
Her husband says that his son's hard work inspires him.
"You know that he's working right along with you and that you owe it to him every step of the way to support him," Michael Dinda added.
Kotler feels the same sense of dedication to her son.
"I owe that to him because he's a wonderful, delightful, loving person, and he just shouldn't have to live that way," Kotler said.
If there's a problem at the school, it is satisfying for her to be able to address it with a staff member who has the expertise, or to go out and find the expertise. The children are thriving, she said.
"Every time we see a spark that he's in there, and he wants to relate, and he wants to be a part of this family, it just makes you hungry for more," Maude Dinda said. "I think when you have children, you know, as soon as you hold them in the hospital, that you would go to the ends of the earth and back again for them if you had to, and with John we've had to. It's just as simple as that."
This is part two of a three-part Good Morning America series, "Autism: Unlocking the Mystery," reported by ABCNEWS' Dr. Tim Johnson and produced by Ami Schmitz, Morgan Zalkin and Anna Robertson.