Anne Sullivan, The Original Pioneer

I recently attended the dramatic depiction of the story of Helen Keller also known as “The Miracle Worker”. It was there that I realized that Annie Sullivan, unbeknownst to her, acted as what I would consider to be the original pioneer of what we in the field of autism know today as “The S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Approach” (TSA)

You may be familiar with the legacy of Anne Sullivan, who is better known as the teacher and companion of Helen Keller. A natural developmentalist Anne knew all about ‘the just right ingredients’ that were necessary to help Helen learn; REALLY learn!. Much like TSA, Anne’s approach was to meet Helen ‘where she was’ at all times. She  saw each waking moment as a grand opportunity to teach, an otherwise un-teachable child, things like language, abstract concepts, and daily life skills. Moreover, Anne strategically used  each moment she interfaced with Helen to facilitate Helen’s ability to connect with the people, physical environment, and emotions that surrounded Helen each day.

“like a little safe, locked… that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.

Helen Keller, although not formally diagnosed on the autism spectrum, presented at times similar to how children with autism do. She struggled to fully express herself, and to act on her world in a safe way. She also struggled to establish conventional relationships with peers and classmates, and even with her family, who despite their ignorance about Helen’s condition, loved Helen her deeply. Yet against the odds, the bright Helen Keller was fierce and determined in her quest to exist in the world. The very world that early on, served to antagonize and sabotage the spirited girl, even as attempted to meet her own basic needs.

In her own words Anne describes Helen as being “like a little safe, locked… that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.” In this precise diary excerpt we see in Anne the budding awareness of what we know in 2013 to be true of EVERY child on the autism spectrum; there most certainly IS a treasure that warrants unlocking. A treasure lying within a safe that can, and will, be ‘opened’ with the just-right tools and the just right locksmiths…the ones who help make connections where connections first must happen – the brain.
Anne used many methods to elicit those connections, and insisted on first “reaching, and then teaching”  young Helen. With this approach, a commensurate hallmark of TSA, Anne elicited in Helen true, meaningful and brisk progress. She helped Helen unlock her own safe and subsequently she helped unleash the communicative, functional, and intelligent version of Helen Keller the world now remembers.
Among Helen Keller’s array of accomplishments are writing, lecturing, and political advocacy for deaf/blind populations everywhere. For this we all have to thank the Keller Family, Helen herself, and of course the incomparable Miss Anne Sullivan whom I suspect at one time or another muttered to herself TSA’s famous tag line… “It Doesn’t Need to be This Hard…For Anyone.”


Awetism Productions produces Connect with S.U.C.C.E.S.S. seen on The Autism Channel