Helen Keller lived for many years in Easton.
A few miles away in Westport, Wynston Browne is a 21st-century Helen Keller.
The Staples High School rising sophomore is severely autistic. He does not speak.
From his diagnosis before he was 2 years old, to just a year or so ago, everyone — including his parents and 4 siblings — thought he was intellectually disabled. His IQ was believed to be 60 or so. The books read to him were 1st-grade level.
With his detached look and inability to focus, he was assumed to be off-the-charts disabled.
Last week I spent a couple of hours with Wynston and his parents, Lynda Kommel-Browne and David. It may have been the most astonishing, eye-opening afternoon of my life.
Research shows that for Wynston and others, the inability to speak is not cognitive. It’s muscular.
He cannot make connections between his brain, and his mouth, jaw and tongue. But Wynston’s brain is spectacularly active.
And it always has been.
Using a spelling board — a simple, low-tech device with letters and numbers he points to — and working with an extremely gifted, dedicated and professionally trained communication partner named Elisa Feinman, Wynston has made great progress in the past year.
But in the last month, his parents say, his growth has been phenomenal — about 10 years’ worth of progress. They now know he can graduate from high school, and go on to college.
He might even follow the path blazed by Dan Bergmann, a non-speaking Harvard Extension School graduate, who gave his school’s commencement address.
Or the co-valedictorian at Rollins College, Elizabeth Bonker,
Wynston might follow 2 top University of California-Berkeley undergraduates, one of whom graduated with a 4.0 GPA. He’s headed to Vanderbilt, to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
Or UCLA’s first non-verbal graduate,who earned summa cum laude honors.
During the pandemic, Lynda and David heard about organizations promoting the idea that non-speakers had motor — not intellectual — differences. Wynston began working with the letter board about a year ago.
He points to the letter he wants, to spell out words. It’s easier than typing. Because of motor difficulties, when non-verbal people make typos, it’s assumed they lack intelligence.
Elisa holds the board for Wynston. But what he does with it is amazing.
It’s inspirational. And life-changing.
In the past month, Wynston’s parents have watched in wonder as he not only answers questions and does math problems, but demonstrates abstract thinking. He expresses his emotions — something it seemed he was never able to describe — and answers open-ended, personal questions.
On Fathers Day, Wynston spelled out, and Elise wrote down, a card to his dad.
“I like to give my dad hugs,” he said. He wanted to honor his father by being “the best person I can.” He vowed to work hard “to increase my skills like communication.”
His spelling board, he added, makes him feel “happy.”
Suddenly, Wynston’s world has been unlocked. It’s not unlike Helen Keller spelling “water” for the first time with Anne Sullivan.
There were several books on Wynston’s table. I chose a biography about Temple Grandin — the scientist, animal behaviorist and autism advocate.
I read a few pages out loud. Wynston did not make eye contact; it looked like he was not even listening.
But he sure was.
When I was finished, Elisa asked him some questions. Where did Grandin earn her master’s? (Arizona State). What was her major? (Animal science.) What was her highest degree? (Ph.D.).
He did the same with a book about the atom bomb, which Elisa had read to him a couple of days earlier. He remembered Lyman Briggs (head of FDR’s Uranium Committee — a name and group I’d never heard of), He spelled every word correctly — including “physicist,” which trips up many people.
And he did it all despite never having had a formal spelling lesson.
For years, Lynda says, “He was learning basic math. Because he couldn’t express how easy it was, he exhibited extreme behavior” — rocking and other motions. “That reinforced for others that he did not understand basic math. Bur really, he knew much more than that.”
Elisa held up a board with numbers. Wynston quickly went through addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems well beyond “basic math.”
Then it was time for a chess lesson. The game demands many types of intelligence: pattern recognition, thinking ahead, analytical skills, long-term memory.
Wynston made his moves quickly and confidently.
Scenes like these excite and hearten his parents — and make them angry and wistful too. They rue the nearly 15 years they held low expectations for him. They wonder what he felt all those years, with so much intelligence bottled up inside, and no way to express it.
“I get goosebumps,” Elisa says, her voice breaking. “I feel we wasted so much time. But now he will excel. and we will push him as far as we can.”
“Wynston is not non-verbal,” Lynda emphasizes. “He is non-speaking.”
She notes one small sign of Wynston’s abilities to think deep thoughts, and express them well. The other day, she asked him which dog he preferred: his service animal, or the family pet.
He chose the one with “a calm temper.”
On the outside, Wynston may not seem calm. He rocks, makes repetitive motions, and is in constant motion.
It took nearly 15 years for the people closest to him — his parents — to realize that his brain was moving just as rapidly. He had thoughts, ideas and feelings — but no way to “speak” them.
Now he does.
Wynston Browne is non-verbal. But he’s not unintelligent.
Far from it. He’s learning how to communicate well. He’s learning many things people thought he never could.
And the rest of us are learning that he may very well be gifted.
(Hat tip: Jill Johnson Mann)
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Awesome story. Thanks, Dan. Hi, Wynston! Enjoy your day!
These are some amazing kids. I still remember vividly Claire Danes” performance as Temple Grandin.
What a fantastic story. I hope Wynston goes on to great achievements.
The famous Dan Woog at it again.
This is your pal David Flaschen.
My son has used facilitated communication for years.
Thank you for highlighting this game changer
What an incredible story! I’m so glad everyone has discovered Wynston’s ‘voice’! I’m sure he will teach everyone so much! ♥️
Just beautiful, Dan. I knew I was placing this story in the right hands.
What an eye-opening and inspiring breakthrough. Wynston’s Fathers Day card brought me to tears. Thank you all for sharing this amazing life story.
This might be the most inspiring – and eye opening – story I’ve ever read on your blog, Dan. Thank you for sharing it. Wynston, please continue to share your thoughts and ideas with the world. This morning your voice moved me – a perfect stranger! – to tears sprung from hope. I am in absolute awe of your (immeasurable) patience and your fortitude and that all this flows through your stencil board with love and persistence. Thank you, Wynston, for opening up and sharing yourself and your achievements with our community. And thank you, Browne family, for never giving up on your incredible son. I wish you all the absolute best, which is surely still yet to come. – Jen
Ms. Greely, I can’t think of a more perfect comment. It is exactly how I feel.
So incredible and inspiring!
Much of the difficulty many people have in understanding autism is related to the tendency to think of intelligence as a linear function. But it is not a linear function, something that can be measured in a single number such as one’s IQ. There are multiple components to intellectual ability.
Speaking is something most of us take for granted, but it is a very complex process. When you begin to appreciate the complexity of producing speech, you can understand how some people can understand completely what others are saying but can be unable to produce speech themselves.
Autism is a wide spectrum. I was diagnosed with autism later in life. Although I learned to speak at what would be considered a normal age, other kids always told me that I talked strangely. In my senior year of high school, I placed first in the state of Connecticut in a national math contest. But I have had to learn over time the social skills that most people consider common sense.
It is good that medical science is helping everyone to understand people like Wynston better.
Thank you Dan for writing such a beautiful story about Wynston! Some of Wynston’s goals is to help educate people about what autism looks like and to help autistics find their own unique voice! Your wonderful article helps Wynston accomplishments both of these objectives! Thank you again, Elisa
The best kind of story! Thanks to all of you.
Great story and reporting. My ex-brother-in-law is autistic. Raised in Darien in the 70’s, severely burned as an infant, the doctors blamed his behavior on a variety of maladies including AD/HD, hyperactivity, retardation etc. And they had a pill for every diagnosis and poor David was usually all doped up, he could barely function. They sent him to Staples from Darien in the Special Education department and he did better. Amazing kid, could ramble on and on about Russian history but had trouble even cutting his dinner’s meat. Finally, a doctor treated him correctly and he blossomed into a fine young productive man. I do believe an autistic young lady was first in her class at a Florida university, couldn’t speak but gave her valediction via a computer. Bravo Zulu, Wynston.
Thanks, Carl. The video in the story links to the woman you mention — the Rollins valedictorian. Amazing achievement!
Yes! I’m so glad to see this! These kids often have fantastic receptive language but have trouble with expressive language (speech), which is a fine-motor skill, believe it or not. It’s almost as if these kids had a stroke that inhibited their ability to speak, similar to older people that have a stroke and then have aphasia or apraxia of speech.
The best book I’ve read on this is J.B. Handley’s book “Underestimated: An Autism Miracle”, in which he (the author) also underestimated the intelligence and abilities of his teenage son: https://www.amazon.com/Underestimated-Autism-Miracle-Childrens-Defense/dp/1510766367/ref=sr_1_1
Also, Julie Sando, a Spelling2Communicate trainer, did a terrific webinar about this subject and teaches that competence should always be presumed in these kids: https://epidemicanswers.org/webinar/s2c-rpm-and-other-assistive-technologies-for-non-speakers/
Wonderful article,Wonderful comments, here..:-)
Thanks to Everyone-
One of your more astonishing—and uplifting—stories. What’s especially amazing is the fact that Wynston has had about “ten years’ worth of progress” in roughly a month.
So amazing, I am thrilled for Wynston and the entire family!! Your advocacy and determination on behalf of your son is truly wonderful and life changing for him!!!
This is a breathtaking, inspiring story of Winston’s achievements, and also of his parents devotion– my friends Lynda Kommel-Brown and David Browne. I am so proud of all of them!!
Thank you everyone for your comments and loving reactions. Wynston will be “speaking” with guests (letter board in-tow) at THE PORCH at Christies, 161 Cross Highway in Westport, from 11:30am to 1pm tomorrow, Wed. 8/10. He looks forward to sharing and learning more about you and our inspiring community. (Dad)
How inspiring! I too have a don with severe autism who is non verbal. I wonder if I could get help finding someone to help unlock him. I know he’s smart and has complex thoughts with no way of communicating them. It would be life changing.