GMA Autism Series: Q and A

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Jan. 20, 2003 -- In the fall of 2001, Melinda 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 concept behind the school is that the only truly appropriate program for severely language-disordered children is one that immerses them in a full-time only instruction program that is language-based and therapeutic.

Dinda has answered some of the questions on autism that were sent to If you still have questions, or yours were not answered, visit, or email the school at

Question: I am a public school teacher of preschool children and special needs children. I work with autistic students and would like to know how to get more information on the Magnolia School curriculum.

Also, I am curious to know if the founders of the school are familiar with the North Carolina T.E.A.C.C.H. system? This system seems to be quite well developed and successful. I would love to compare the two and exchange techniques so that we could explore the most advantageous approaches for my students. Thank you.

— Rebecca, Weaverville,N.C.

Answer: TALK's (Teaching Autistic, Apraxic and Severely Language Disordered Kids) Magnolia School Demonstration Program is affiliated with the Magnolia Speech School in Jackson, Miss., and the curriculum we use was developed by Magnolia in Jackson over the last 46 years.

It is a developmental curriculum which is very detailed and systematic, covering 11 areas: audition, receptive language, expressive language, reading, Association Method, math, science, social studies, fine motor, gross motor and interaction skills. It is copyrighted by Magnolia in Jackson. Both our programs are full day intensive speech and language programs. Our focus is on developing fluency in oral and written language.

The Association Method, developed by Mildred McGinnis, is a multi-sensory phonics-based method that teaches children to say and recognize single sounds, then to combine sounds, then nouns, simple sentences and corresponding questions and so on to complex language, always ensuring the children master and continue to practice mastered material to lessen frustration and anxiety. It is the integration of attention, retention and recall that will allow the children to develop automaticity of language.

The underlying principles of teaching systematically, incrementally and ensuring success for the child have proven with many kids to be what they needed. You can learn about professional development in the Association Method by going to our website, clicking on the Related Links button, and click on the Dubard School for Language Disorders Link. It is a method that requires a long period of mentorship and training to become proficient in and provide children with the full benefit.

Question: I have an autistic 10 year old. Is there a window of opportunity for learning this method for the children?

Would like more information on this school and how it works. Thank you

—Ginger, Goldsboro, NC

Answer: As with all interventions with autistic and severely communication impaired children, the younger you start the child in intensive therapy, the better the outcome potential.

To participate in an Association Method program, a child needs to be classroom ready, meaning they need to be able to sit and attend in a classroom setting. Children who have been through behavioral programs usually are accustomed to this. It could be appropriate for a 10 year old, but each child needs to be evaluated to determine if this is the appropriate educational choice for him or her.

There are two books available on the Association Method. One is Teaching Language Deficient Children by Etoile DuBard and Maureen Martin and the other is the original text by Mildred McGinnis called Aphasic Children: Identification and Education by the Association Method. For more information in the Association Method go to our website

Question: I was curious if you were accepting anymore students at your school? If so, are there any scholarships available, as we are a limited income family with no resources really available from our state to help with funding.

My son is 14 and even though I see that he has made progress at home and just with maturing he still has no verbal communication or many self help skills. With his age, I feel time is running out to reach him. I've been looking for someplace that could TRULY help him for a few years now and getting nowhere!!

Thanks for listening.

— Sherry, Rolla, Mo.

Answer We are currently planning to expand our current two classes to three classes in the Fall of 2003. TALK's (Teaching Autistic, Apraxic and Language Disordered Kids) larger mission is to establish a first class educational center serving the comprehensive needs of severely communication impaired children in our region.

An important component of that objective is to develop a facility that can educate, mentor and develop experienced speech pathologists and special educators that are thoroughly proficient in the method. Achieving that mission is contingent upon our ability to secure funding from a variety of private and public sources.

With respect to your child, I would encourage you to seek the counsel and advice of a local family law practitioner. In this country, every child is entitled to a free, appropriate, public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In Philadelphia, the Education Law Center provides information on parents' rights. I suggest you go online and search for the organization in your state that can provide guidance and assistance in this area.

Question: What is the association method? Have you had any luck with the Pragmatic Approach by Linda Arwood? Please respond to me directly as I don't go to online chat rooms. Thank you very much. We are all in this together.

— Kathryn, Dallas

AnswerSee answer to Question # 1. I am not familiar with the Pragmatic Approach by Linda Arwood.

Question:I have worked with autistic children in the past. I am interested in working with autistic children and am looking at getting my masters in occupational therapy.

I am very interested in your school and the work you are doing. Could you please give me more information re: the Magnolia School, what your plans are, etc. I have considered starting a program for autistic children, but am uncertain as to how to do that. What are your requirements for working with a school like yours and what path would you recommend I take to pursue this type of work. Should I get a teaching credential or stay with occupational therapy? I already have a liberal studies B.A. Any information would be gratefully accepted.

— Rebecca, Novato, CA

AnswerWith your background in Occupational Therapy, I would recommend you get in touch with Jeanetta Burpee at the Jeanetta Burpee Institute. She and her staff are supervising the integration of two critical aspects of our school, our Sensory Integration / Occupational Therapy and the relationship based "Floortime" therapy based on the teachings of Stanley Greenspan. You can find the links to both the Burpee site and the Greenspan site at our website,

I champion your efforts in this area. This is important and exciting work, and a critical component of our three-pronged approach that incorporates the Association Method curriculum, relationship based ("floortime") therapy, and occupational / sensory integration therapy. We believe true communication for an autistic or severely communication impaired child can only be achieved if you allow a child to practice continually the process of attaching affect and intent to behavior.


My niece was just diagnosed 2 weeks ago wit Mild/Highly functioning Autism. She is only 3 years old. She is currently receiving OT and Speech Therapy. What additional therapy options are there that she can benefit from? She currently lives outside of the Annapolis MD area. What local resources are available that she can take advantage of in MD? Can we have the phone # of the Magnolia School in Berwyn? Thank You.

— Carla, Annapolis MD

Answer When a child is first diagnosed, it is important to make sure that he/she receives intensive services. She should be evaluated by a team consisting of an experienced developmental pediatrician, speech pathologist, and occupational therapist.

Fortunately, your niece is also near Stanley Greenspan's Institute in Bethesda, MD. Their organization offers training and consultation in the relationship based "floortime" approach we practice.

Many people begin with behavioral programs to teach compliance, attention and to teach the children how to learn. If she is high functioning and doesn't need this type of program, and even if she does start a behavioral program, she should also receive intensive speech and language therapy. We haven't started a class of 3 year olds in our program yet, but we may in the future. You can contact us through for more information.

Question: A friend of mine has a seven-year-old autistic son. Thus far, she has been trying to home school him but has been unsuccessful in her efforts. The curriculum that you teach, is it available to the public?

Is it something you created from your experiences? Did you create it based on the studies Melinda Kotler brought back from San Francisco? There are some schools in the Los Angeles area that are available to my friend and her son but they don't have the financial resources to pursue that avenue. If I could find out how you obtained or developed your curriculum then I'm hoping we can use it as a foundation and go from there.

Your help would be greatly appreciated.

— Aimee, Fullerton, California

Answer: The Magnolia Speech School curriculum is not something your friend could do on her own. Depending on the particular language disorder of the child, it requires either a skilled speech pathologist or experienced special educator who has received extensive training and ongoing mentoring over several years before they are properly skilled and prepared to implement the program.

The principles of the Association Method are carried over throughout the day in all academic subjects. For this method to be effective, it is critical that a severely language disordered child be placed in a full day intensive Association Method program. If there are programs your friend believes would benefit her child in Los Angeles, encourage her to get legal help.

Her child is entitled to a free, appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In Philadelphia, the Education Law Center provides information on parents' rights. Go online and search for the organization in Los Angeles that can provide help for your friend. You can also check with local law schools to get help.

My son, Christopher, is 5 years old and only has "maybe 5 words" and really doesn't even use the few words he has. According to "professionals" he does not have Autism. He understands everything and communicates with gestures and wonderful expressions. Can you please tell me more about the children that attend the school who are not Autistic? He has had speech therapy since age 2 years and he is enrolled in a full day special education kindergarten program. It is very frustrating to my husband and myself because no one seems to know what is wrong. Christopher is just a beautiful, happy little boy and we just want the best for him.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you for your time.

— Maureen Cole, North Salem, NY

Answer: Our program is for all children with severe communication disorders. Some of our children have apraxia. This is a motor planning disorder that makes it difficult for children to produce sounds or to sequence sounds for intelligible speech. The Association Method is very effective for treating apraxia. Apraxia is a severe language and communication disorder, and therefore, it requires a full-day intensive speech and language program for speech and language to become automatic. Marilyn Agin is a developmental pediatrician in NYC who specializes in apraxia. She might be able to refer you to someone in your area for a detailed speech and language evaluation. From your email, I am not sure what the speech therapist's diagnosis is. If it does turn out to be apraxia, two great resources are the Apraxia Kids listserve and childrensapraxianet listserve.

Question:Is there anything we can do for early intervention for 2 1/2 month old baby. He has cousins who have some autistic features. Baby seldom looks at us but seems to be looking past us. There are times when he seems to be tracking OK.

— Howard, Marion, Iowa

Answer: Some early autism diagnostic tests have been developed. They won't be for a child as young as yours, but you are smart to be watching for signs, especially in light of some of the genetic tendencies you mentioned in your question.

I always advise people to start the process with their family pediatrician. Due to the incredible escalation in the rate of autism, the medical community has become more perceptive and responsive to parental concerns. I suggest you visit the Cure Autism Now Web site,, for more information regarding diagnosis and early detection.

If you can't locate the information on the site, email them and they will tell you how to find it. My only caution to you is that 2 1/2 months is very young, and although they are diagnosing children at increasingly younger ages, I'm not aware of anyone making a diagnosis at this tender young age.


I would like to first commend you on the wonderful work you are doing both with the school and with sharing your experiences with others. I have a 2-year old with autism, and I would like to know how your family helps John in public situations.

We find it very difficult, at times, to cope when we are in restaurants, stores, parks … both with how our son, Alex, handles the situation and how other people react to us. I would appreciate any advice you could give us.

Also, are there any similar schools in the Los Angeles area that you know of? Thank you again for the incredible work you have done and have shared with us.

— Jayme Valencia, CA

Answer:I will address the second part of your question first. I am not currently aware of any schools similar to ours in the Los Angeles area. However, Melinda Kotler and I are committed to establishing a strong regional educational and training center on the East Coast that could hopefully spawn similar programs throughout the country.

I empathize with and relate to the challenges you experience in public situations and know how demanding, awkward, and frustrating those moments can be. First and foremost, my advice to you is to not retreat from the challenges of everyday life. Your family needs to continue to exist and Alex needs to be introduced to many different experiences, environments and situations in order to learn, transition, adjust and develop familiarity.

Behavioral therapy could also help your son understand your expectations of him in a public place. If you have therapists currently working with your son, you can have them incorporate outings to various locations in your community to familiarize Alex with people, places, and things in his local community.

It's also a great idea to use visual schedules because so many of our children are visually oriented and the visual picture schedule gives the child an idea of what to expect and helps with transitions from one place to another. Inevitably, public outbursts or scenes will occur and often bystanders will not understand your unique circumstances.

You will learn to formulate contingency plans in the event of such occurrences and it always helps to have an extra pair of hands whether its a spouse, family member, friendly helper, or therapist. I have learned not to let an ignorant, insensitive person's stares or comments bother me. I find that most people are very helpful and understanding.

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