Laura Baah crouched next to one of her students at the Linwood Center in Ellicott City as he worked on a handout about basketball one recent morning. Errol Totten, 13 and autistic, was having trouble focusing.
He wanted Baah to sit next to him. But she needed to help other students. Errol gestured to the chair next to him, but Baah didn't sit down. Frustrated, Errol finally grabbed her arm to pull her down.
The moment could have quickly deteriorated in another setting, at another school. But decades ago, Linwood pioneered the treatment of autistic children with the philosophy that children should be accepted as they are into nurturing, positive environments. So Baah, who has worked at the school for six years, knew to stay calm. She took Errol's hands and held them firmly.
"Okay, do you want to take a break?" she asked him.
Baah led the boy outside to a trampoline so he could burn off his energy. He returned a few minutes later, calm and ready to finish the handout.
Founded 50 years ago, Linwood was one of the first schools in the country to work exclusively with autistic children. At the time, its methods were considered revolutionary.
Jeanne M. Simons, a psychiatrist who died this spring, started the school after meeting a 13-year-old boy named Lee. He was the son of a colleague at a Washington treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. The boy had been institutionalized for years, and Simons recognized his disorder.
She had worked with Leo Kanner, the Baltimore physician who first diagnosed and coined the term "autism." Simons noticed that such children rarely spoke, exhibited compulsive mannerisms and seemed to live in their own world.
Jonathan Rabben, one of Linwood's first students, remembered Simons during a gala at historic Savage Mill on Sunday evening to celebrate the school's golden anniversary.
"She loved naughty children, and I was very naughty and still am," Rabben said.
Rabben is one of Linwood's success stories. Now married and a certified public accountant, he said the school's accepting environment helped him break out of his shell.
"Once the door was open to me to come out and be myself, Lord knows I became myself," he told an applauding audience.
Linwood enrolls 24 students ages 9 to 21 in day and residential programs. Seventeen students live at the school, either during weekdays or full time. The school also provides programs for 21 adults and operates seven homes for them in the community.
The center, in a historic stone mansion near the county government complex, is funded largely with public money. Students are referred to Linwood exclusively through the Howard County school system when the district does not have the resources to meet those children's needs.
"We feel really positive whenever we have to think about a Linwood placement," said Nicholas Girardi, principal of Cedar Lane School, the county's school for students with severe disabilities. "It's for students who are autistic who have more challenging behavior issues than we can resolve."
Friends and colleagues said Simons often declared that she had opened the school to help the parents of autistic children as much as the students.
Pat Bucher, mother of a former Linwood student, said the 11 years that her son Jimmy spent in public school were like a nightmare. Doctors and other specialists declared Jimmy "hopelessly retarded," she said.
He had problems such as biting other people and banging his little sister's head. He could read just as well, maybe even better, than the children in his kindergarten and first-grade classes. But he still had problems with toilet training and would cry if a school bus with a different number on it went to pick him up.
Bucher said she tried to find private facilities that would accept her son. She called 23 specialized schools. All said no.
Then a friend told her about Linwood. During her first meeting at the school, Bucher remembered, the staff told her what she had been longing to hear: "They said they wanted him."
Linwood helped her son learn how to control his behavior, Bucher said. He learned how to sit still and stopped biting. By 16, he was back in public school for two hours each day. Now 29, he has a job at a Wal-Mart and lives on his own.
"People love him," Bucher said.
Bill Moss, executive director of Linwood, said that the goals for each student are different but that the school tries to help them function socially and prepares them to live as independently as possible.
"There's something for everybody," Moss said.
Autism has been accepted as a neurological developmental disorder, affecting nearly 1 in every 166 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1988 film "Rain Man" brought national attention to the disorder.
Linwood's methods have also entered the mainstream, and Moss said that is where the school wants to be.
The school has outgrown the aging mansion and is embarking on a campaign to raise $4.5 million to build a state-of-the-art facility in Howard. The older section is believed to have been built as early as the 1780s, and the newer wing is more than 100 years old.
Moss said he hopes the new building will have a therapy room where students can go to decompress and expanded residential services for students and adults. He also wants to open more houses in the community, maybe even one per year.
County officials showed their support for the school at the anniversary gala Sunday. County Executive James N. Robey (D) and several County Council members and state delegates attended the event and presented the school with citations for its service in Howard.
Speakers at the gala said they could feel Simons's presence in the room. Then, Linwood's directors surprised the crowd with a video of Simons taped three weeks before she died.
She spoke from a couch filled with stuffed animals, tubes running across her face. But her voice never wavered as she talked about the school and the people to whom she had devoted her life.
"Basically, nothing has changed," Simons said. "I am so touched and impressed that over 50 years Linwood has so many friends."