Sybil Elgar, British pioneer in autism education, dies at 92|
LONDON, UK: Sybil Elgar, a British pioneer in the education and care of children and adults with autism, nationally and internationally, died on January 8 at the age of 92.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Dr Lorna Wing, one of the world's leading autism experts, said: "She was the UK's first autism-specific teacher and an inspiration to those who knew her, at a time when autism was still ill-defined and widely misunderstood."
Born (on June 10, 1914) and brought up in Willesden, north-west London, Elgar was the daughter of an engine-driver father and a mother who worked in the Pathé News factory.After leaving school, she became a town clerk's assistant before getting a job as a school secretary. She had no money to go to college and, staying at home to be with her then widowed and unwell mother, she took a Montessori teaching diploma as a correspondence course.
Her interest in helping children was first sparked during her Montessori training when a visit to a hospital in London for "severely emotionally disturbed children" in 1958 left her deeply shocked. She could not forget how soul-destroying the place was and how miserable the children were.
As Dr Wing recalled, in those days, "psychotic" children were still largely seen by some professionals as having a psychiatric disorder for which parents, particularly mothers, were held responsible. Parents of most severely disabled children were regularly told to "put the child away" as being best for the family.
As Dr Wing noted, we now know that autism is a disorder of brain development due to physical causes, and the right kind of education is essential for the children.
Elgar revisited the hospital in 1960 and, on seeing that nothing had changed, decided to set up her own school, initially in the basement of her home.
"With patience, instinct and a degree of experimentation, she developed a structured approach to teaching, giving her pupils clear and simple instructions and visual aids to ensure they understood what was required of them," wrote Dr Wing. "Her methods ran counter to mainstream educational thought at the time. However, all the children in her class made substantial progress. Demand for her teaching rapidly grew, and in 1964 Sybil and the newly formed Society for Autistic Children (now the National Autistic Society) managed to purchase premises to open the world's first residential school for children with autism, in Ealing.
As Dr Wing pointed out, Sybil was a pioneer twice over, since she also founded Somerset Court, Britain's first residential community for adults with autism, in Brent Knoll, Somerset, in 1974.
"She recognised that while the children at the Ealing school improved considerably, they remained classically autistic, and if they did not continue to receive support as adults they could easily lose the skills they had learned. They needed a protected community for life. At Somerset Court, she was able to demonstrate that the skills the children had acquired at school greatly enhanced their lives as adults with autism."
Dr Wing was a founder member of Britain's National Autistic Society and her nine-year-old daughter, Susie, who had had autism and severe learning disabilities, was one of the first to attend Elgar's school.
Children at the school had an educational programme adapted to their individual needs. Always cool and collected, in control of any situation, Sybil loved the children she taught as much as they loved her. She was awarded an MBE in 1975, and is survived by her daughter Jackie. Her husband Jack died in 1994.
Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru, "Sybil Elgar was the first great pioneer of the education of children with autistic spectrum disorders in the world. During the early 1960s, Sybil, who was Montessori-trained, taught very young nursery-aged children with autism in a room within the London home of Helen Green Allison (whose own son was one of this small group). Sybil showed herself to be an astoundingly perceptive 'reader' of the patterns of thinking and learning of children with autism.
"Remember that, at this stage, children with autism were simply not being recognised, never mind diagnosed, so there was no autism rule book or guidelines for Sybil to draw upon (as there are today). Sybil therefore constructed her own teaching methodologies which today still pervade many of the approaches used in the education of children with autistic spectrum disorders.
"It is important that parents and practitioners within the field understand the critical influence of Sybil's methods upon the well-known and marketed approaches which came later and which drew heavily upon her work. During the early days from over 40 years ago, Sybil then was then at the forefront of the establishment of the first school for children with autism in Europe and then, in August 1974, the first service for adults with autism. In fact, it was Sybil in 1974 who moved the children (now reaching adulthood) from Florence Road in Ealing, 'lock stock and barrel' down to Somerset, as there was absolutely no appropriate provision for them anywhere else.
"I had the priviledge of interviewing Sybil and also colleagues of hers during the early 1990s and was fascinated to learn some of the stories from those early days, of the trials and tribulations, of the visits of The Beatles and other personalities such as the actor, Robert Morley, to the school.
"Sybil Elgar may have passed but the legacy of her work in the education of people with autism is with us today and will continue for many, many years to come."
Wendy Brown, founding head of Helen Allison and Broomhayes special schools for autism and the first chairwoman of the Association of Head Teachers for Children with autism, told Adam Feinstein, Editor of Awares and AutismConnect: "Every single one of us climbed on Sybil's shoulders to get where we got. People are not always aware what an enormous debt we owe to her. For people with autism, Asperger's syndrome, a carer or a parent, she was a person who knew where to start and pointed us in the right direction. Her pioneering methodology was widely copied."
Brown added: "At a time when people were strict to the point of severity, a well-known clinical psychologist, Dr Beate Hermelin, told me: 'The great thing about Sybil is that she's a secret cuddler. If you opened a door suddenly, she would be cuddling a child'."
Linda Head, who worked at Elgar's pioneering school and became a good friend of hers, told Adam Feinstein: "I remember Michael Rutter,Uta Frith and Laurie Bartak appearing at the school from time to time and I helped with some of their research, in the sense of managing the children while they tried to get responses from them). Sybil also had a visit from Eric Schopler, who went on to develop TEACCH. He spent some time with her and some of her Montessori methods featured as the basis for TEACCH - for example,discrete tasks in boxes and always putting the task away.
"I had a university holiday job, from 1964, looking after Joe Allison. Helen Allison had found a teacher running a Montessori group in her basement in St John’s Wood. Sybil Elgar was that teacher and she agreed to take Joe on. Wendy Brown recounted at Sybil’s funeral the story Sybil told about how Joe would tear up reams on paper and screw them up, often throwing them into a box. After some weeks, Sybil decided to change this. She asked him to pick up the pieces and met with no reaction. She held his hand and showed him what she wanted him to do. His lack of reaction was changed to a dawning realisation, and he started to pick up the pieces. Sybil often recounted how this had made her realise that speaking was not effective as communication to this boy.