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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