September 29, 2006
"Do you have a minute, Lauren?" asks
Steven Mazen, approaching a learning consultant at his school. A
bright-eyed, sturdy 11-year-old, Steven is working on his
"Do you like basketball?" he asks.
To hold a conversation with a child with autism reveals the magical
complexity of this most basic human exchange. There must be an
opening query, an invitation that is not intimidating. Interest and
enthusiasm needs to be conveyed in the voice, with emphasis on
certain words. The voice should rise at the end of a question and go
down when making a statement. And, when someone is not interested in
the topic, a quick turn must be made to keep a conversation going.
"I never really liked basketball," Lauren answers.
Steven Mazen using prompts to
carry on conversations.
Steven pauses a second, switches
gears. "I play on a baseball team with my brother," he says.
Lauren tells Steven she likes to watch the Yankees.
"I like the Yankees when they beat the Mets," Steven says.
Lauren, it so happens, is planning to attend a baseball game soon.
"I hope it doesn't rain!" Steven says. "Please bring an umbrella in
case it rains!"
"This weekend I'm going to Andrew's swim meet," he says, referring
to his older brother. His intonation is slightly off.
Ask her what she's doing this weekend, his teacher prompts.
Lauren is going to a barbeque.
Steven's timer beeps, signaling the end of his
task to practice conversation. He thanks her. "Nice talking to you,"
The exchange was a bit staged for an 11-year-old, but unscripted —
the real thing. It contained statements and questions, personal
information and neutral comments. Like a new driver lurching along
with a stick-shift, Steven has a learner's permit in the realm of
conversation. With more practice, he will become more fluent.
And that, says Steven's mother, Marla Mazen, is a major
"At one time," she says, Steven's home teachers "thought he had
apraxia, that his mouth actually couldn't form the words."
But Marla never doubted. "I always in my heart knew he would speak.
He would speak if it killed me. As a mother, you set goals for your
children and know they're going to get there."
Steven developed normally until about 18 months, then began
regressing with autism.
"We noticed things were slipping," says Mazen, of Upper Saddle
He didn't respond to his name. They talked with his pediatrician,
who suggested a hearing test because Steven had had lots of ear
The audiologist "couldn't get him to respond enough to measure
anything," Mazen says. Eventually they consulted a neurologist, who
said Steven not only had autism, but was probably retarded. The
neurologist said Steven would need institutionalization and would be
a drain on the family for the rest of his life.
"We walked out of his office and sat in the car and cried," she
says. "I was devastated. I felt that this sweet little child of mine
had died and been replaced by a child I didn't know."
It took three months for Mazen to arrange a home program of 40 hours
a week, plus speech therapy. At 3, Steven started at the Institute
for Educational Achievement.
His first lessons were about looking up – and into people's eyes.
Then his teachers introduced short phrases, such as "naptime" and
"lunchtime." He said them with prompting.
Over time, the phrases became more complex. He was taught to ask
questions about his conversation partner, because children with
autism are often focused solely on themselves. Then his teachers
worked with him on the subtle area of changing the subject.
Each day, Steven looks at his Palm Pilot. He sees the note: Find
someone to talk with.
He scans the room, eager for conversation.