When Ruth S. Ammon School of Education Assistant Professor Stephen Shore was 18 months old, he stopped talking and started having tantrums. A doctor diagnosed him as having autism—a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others—and recommended he be institutionalized. It was the mid- 1960s, and the medical establishment considered autism to be a severe psychiatric-based disorder caused by poor parenting. Dr. Shore’s parents ignored the doctor’s suggestion, and instead tried to revive his communication skills using music and movement. His mother imitated him to capture his attention. By age four, he’d regained his ability to speak and was able to enroll in a regular kindergarten.
As scientists now know, autism is a spectrum of disorders, ranging from the severe to the mild. On the severe end, a child may have no speech and make no eye contact. On the mild end, where Asperger Syndrome falls, a child may talk a lot, but still have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, like facial expressions.
And, as Dr. Shore’s parents discovered, autism is not a static diagnosis. With the right interventions, particularly at a young age, people can move towards the milder end of the spectrum. Indeed, Dr. Shore went on to earn a Doctorate of Education degree in special education, married his college girlfriend, and wrote several books on autism, including Understanding Autism for Dummies (with coauthor Linda Rastelli) and a personal account of growing up with autism called Beyond the Wall, before joining the Adelphi faculty in 2009. A member of the Autism Society of America’s Board of Directors and the National Institute of Mental Health’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, Dr. Shore is regularly interviewed by major media, including CNN and public radio, about living with autism and current research.
Dr. Shore was filmed at the Manhattan Center last February for a segment of the Public Broadcasting Service series NOVA scienceNOW on “Magic and the Brain.” He gave an interview on the implications of using magic to diagnose and treat children with autism. “One aspect of magic is the misdirection of joint attention of the magician and the audience to a place the performer does not want them to look,” says Dr. Shore. “Lack of this joint attention is a common characteristic of autism, suggesting that people with autism, such as myself, may be harder to fool with magic. During the interview, I talked about how I immediately saw through a magic trick during a Cub Scout meeting when I was about eight years of age. I remember approaching the magician, telling him, ‘so it works like this’ and reproduced his trick on the spot. Needless to say, he was not amused.”
At the Adelphi Manhattan Center, Dr. Shore teaches courses on special education and autism, including the popular “Introduction to Special Education” and “Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders” classes.
Dr. Shore says he is impressed by how eager students in his courses are to learn the material. “The Adelphi Manhattan Center students tend to be very focused and desire to eke out every bit of knowledge,” he says. “I find them to engage in good classroom discussion and to be hard working. The students also tend to have a lot of life experiences that enrich the courses for everyone.”
He hopes to impart to fellow educators he teaches that: “All students are individuals and part of our jobs as educators is to determine their learning styles; all the techniques and procedures learned in special education courses are really just extensions of good teaching practice; and with the technology and know-how we have today, the potential for people having special needs leading productive and fulfilling lives can become the rule rather than the exception.”
From the 2011 issue of the Manhattan Center Newsletter