Elaine McConnell runs a school for lonely children.
She is director of Accotink Academy in Springfield, where children with learning and emotional problems too severe for the public schools are sent.
Of the 140 children who arrive each morning via family station wagons and a little yellow school bus, almost 90 percent are estimated to be suffering from "aphasis" -- a problem that Accotink officials say can leave the victims frightened and friendless in a "normal" school setting.
"These children have difficulty using and understanding language," McConnell said. "They can't make friends because the other children call them 'dummy' and say they are retarded -- but they aren't, most of the children are very bright.
"The saddest thing in the world was the one little girl who came here when she was 12 years old -- she had never had a friend. Imagine that, not one friend in 12 years . . ."
Most aphasiac students at Accotink have been sent there under contract by local public schools that lack the programs to work intensively with the children.
McConnell and her team of 70 teacher-specialists are pioneers in the field of childhood aphasia -- a neurological disorder that impairs the ability of a person to understand and use language.
Until 15 years ago, aphasia had been identified as a disorder of older people only. The problem was found primarily among stroke victims, a result of the brain damage that usually accompanies a stroke. The symptoms of apasia among stroke victims have been well-documented: the loss of the ability to communicate through speech, not because the voice doesn't work, but because the person has lost the ability to recall the words learned over a lifetime. In many cases, the victims regained their speech only after months, and sometimes years, of intensive speech therapy.
Symptoms of childhood aphasia are similar to those of stroke victims, and the disorder among children is believed to be caused by brain damage, possibly at birth, as the result of an automobile accident or, like their adult counterparts, as the result of a stroke.
The primary difficulty in treating aphasiac children, educators say, is that they never had any language to begin with, so it becomes doubly difficult to guage their intellectual potential.
An example of the language problems of aphasiac children was demonstrated recently in a class at Accotink.
"What is this?" a teacher asked an 11-year-old as she held up a drawing of a harp.
"It's a musical instrument, an xylophone, no a harmonica, no a Hanakuh, no a harp," the frustrated boy finally blurted out.
"These kids are really frustrated," says Accotink language teacher Lisa Koches. "They know they know something but they can't get it out . . . and that's a difference between aphasiacs and mentally retarded kids. Most of the mentally retarded children are not as frustrated -- not as bottled up."
To complicate matters, many people often misdiagnoe aphasia, educators say. Mental retardation, psychosis, deafness and schizophrenia are just a few of the diagnoses McConnell said she has seen given for aphasiac children.
Aphasia poses a special problem for the public schools where educators must diagnose children on the basis of a range of standard tests. Unfortunately, say educators familiar with aphasiac children, none of those tests can effectively diagnose aphasia in children.
The problem, McConnell said, is as educational tests become more abstract, aphasiac children have difficulty understanding and thus tend to score lower. Once IQ scores fall into the mentally retarded stage, schools generally remove aphasic children from classes for the learning disabled classes.
"That's a possibility," admits Dorothy Haramis, director of the Fairfax County School System's Office of Special Education. "But that's also the reason for including verbal and non-verbal tests in the individual evaluations."
Critics say the danger of placing an aphasiac child in a class for mentally retarded children is that the class work will not be geared to their particular needs -- the intensive language drills that they desperately need may be put aside in favor of other school work.
Haramis says that while the medical field has known about aphasia for years, the educational community has just discovered the disorder.
"It really is a complicated issue," Haramis says, "but we are getting more and more information all the time."
When the parents of an aphasiac child learn that the school has reclassified their child as mentally retarded, trouble often begins. As a result, several parents of aphasiac children have clashed with educators over the placement of their children.
"Part of measuring intellect includes language," points out Bea Cameron, the Fairfax County school system's assistant superintendent for the student services and special education, when explaining the difficulty of separating children with language problems from the mentally retarded.
But some parents have refused to accept the school system's evaluation of their children.
"If my son was retarded, I could deal with that," says Jay Rush, the father of an 11-year-old child whom several psychologists and the staff at Accotink have classified as aphasiac. "But he's extremely bright, he just has trouble expressing himself."
Last summer, the Fairfax County School System informed Rush that recent tests showed his son's I.Q. had dropped 27 points in one year -- offically putting him in the category of mentally retarded.
The boy was removed from the learning disabilities class he had attended since 1974 and was assigned to a class for the "mildly mentally retarded." Rush appealed the decision to a state administrative law officer and lost.
In September, he placed his son at Accotink and now is trying to force the school system to pay the estimated annual $6,000 to $8,000 tuition under a federal law that requires equal education for the handicapped.
"It's so sad," McConnell says shaking her head. "But I believe this happens a lot. Kids test poorly and they are immediately classified as retarded."
McConnell refers frequently to the case of a 3-year-old girl who came to Accotink in 1967 -- unable to speak a single word. Through years of patient teaching at Accotink, the girl now can perform on the level of a high school junior.
Three years ago, McConnell said, the child came very close to being placed in a class for the mentally retarded, although she is aphasiac. At that time, the schools reevaluated the child and ordered her returned to the public school in a class for the mentally retarded.
"We fought them," says McConnell. "I was prepared to fight . . . all the way to the Supreme Court just to prove that this girl was not retarded."
An administrative law officer heard the girl's appeal and ruled in favor of the family by allowing the child to stay at Accotink.
Several school officials said earlier this week that they did not recall the case.
"You can't really blame the school system . . . at least Fairfax County is trying," says Julia Warden, educational director at Accotink. "But they need numbers and tests to help classify children; that's when aphasiac kids lost out."
"The aphasiac child does not belong in a class for the retarded," says one Fairfax County school speech clinician. "They need intensive language work, they also need the stimulation of other bright children."
Several Fairfax County speech clinicians say they agree, but note that testing is not sophisticated enough to guarantee that children won't be mislabeled.
"I believe that a good number of older retarded people today are actually aphasiac -- unfortunately they grew up being treated as retarded and expected to achieve only as much as the mentally retarded and, in essence, they become mentally retarded," one speech specialist says.
Through intensive language therapy, the staff at the Accotink say, aphasiac children can make great strides. And one of the great benefits, they say, are the opportunities to make friends, to stop being lonely children. t
When asked if his son wouldn't be happier in the neighborhood school his friends attend, Jay Rush replied: "He's never really had any friends."
Rush's teacher agrees: "He's in a good class here, he's making excellent progress . . . and the other boys want to make friends, they won't give up on him."