Judy Chinitz of Mouth to Hand Learning Center publishes Spellbound: The Voices of the Silent
“A-N-G-E-L L-U-L-L-A-B-Y,” Rocco Cambareri iterates, pointing to letters on a laminated card in front of him. Cambareri shares the title of a song he wrote in honor of his teacher, Judy Chinitz, director of Mouth to Hand Learning Center in Mount Kisco. Cambareri is a 26-year-old man with autism. Until he met Chinitz and worked with her, Cambareri was unable to communicate. Now, he’s writing content to be shared with the world in a published book, “Spellbound: The Voices of the Silent,” which Chinitz published with the support and advisement of Bedford resident, entrepreneur, and book coach Fran Hauser.
For the first twenty-five-and-a-half years of her son Alex’s life, Chinitz tried everything in her professional arsenal to communicate with him, as he, too, is a non-speaking young person with autism. Chinitz left a Wall Street career behind to pursue a Master's Degree in teaching the blind and visually impaired, eventually re-certifying in General Special Education so that she could obtain as much knowledge as possible to teach Alex.
Chinitz says, “I tried to teach him in any way I could. I invented educational multi-modality methods using a combination of tactile, visual, and auditory learning. I worked with very good special educators and speech pathologists and, as far as I could tell, he learned nothing.” Still, Chinitz could not reconcile the signs of intelligence she saw in her son–primarily through his wicked sense of humor, scientifically considered one of the highest forms of intelligence–with a diagnosis of cognitive impairment. Alex, who had spent most of his life on incredibly restrictive diets due to autism-related illness, was not allowed sugar or gluten. Chinitz recalls one of her favorite ‘Alex stories’ from when he was about fifteen years old, and she had hidden Oreos in a high kitchen closet for her younger son. “When I pulled it out, 100% of the cookies were lined up in the package, with the vanilla frosting scraped out of each cookie. They were beautifully put back together again, and lined up perfectly so that you couldn't [initally] see when you pulled the box out.”
While Chinitz laughs as she tells the story, it also proved to be a pivotal moment for her. “Now, what does that tell you?” she asks. Chinitz, who is very scientific in her approach, always seeks answers to problems via keen observation. “This told me that he knows how other people think and feel. Which is not what autism is meant to be. He planned it, knew how it would look to other people, and was engaged in other people’s thought processes,” she explains.
“Autism is defined as a deficit in language and a deficit in social understanding. Autism means auto, as though you’re inside of yourself, not engaged in the outside world, don’t have an understanding of the theory of mind, that other people are different from you, with different thoughts and feelings.” Chinitz’s experience with Alex did not fit this mold and she constantly questioned how he could possess this awareness of others and yet remain labeled “profoundly cognitively impaired.”
With constant nudging from a persistent friend, in July of 2019, Chinitz met decided with a speech pathologist located outside of Washington, D.C. who offered a spelling for communication concept. “I kept telling her ‘what’s the point? I have spent twenty-five years trying to teach him the alphabet,” she recalls. “But like a good friend, she kept nagging until I finally lost my cool, and I said ‘fine, I’ll go.’” Traveling to seek help for her son was nothing new for Chinitz, who had previously sought help across the world. She left for D.C. with little optimism.
Over the next few days, Chinitz observed as the speech pathologist presented Alex with three stencils consisting of the complete alphabet and punctuations, along with a pencil, and asked him to start spelling words. Chinitz and her mother (also a speech pathologist who was very skeptical) observed Alex struggle to make contact with the board, poking through some of the letters and fumbling with the task. Chinitz noted, however, that the speech pathologist engaged her son. “I had observed enough in the two days I spent with the speech pathologist that I thought it was worth trying,” she says. While she remained extremely doubtful, Chinitz decided to give the program a shot, setting a timeline of six months to dedicate to teaching Alex this new method.
“We all are told as parents [of children with autism] that our children have something called apraxia or [as it is sometimes called] dyspraxia,” Chinitz explains. The Dyspraxia Foundation defines dyspraxia as “a neurological disorder throughout the brain that results in lifelong impaired motor, memory, judgment, processing, and other cognitive skills.” Chinitz further explains that dyspraxia heavily affects the eyes. “There is a tremendous amount of brainpower that contributes to these movements. We have twelve cranial nerves, and three of them are devoted just to movements of the eyes.” Being able to point out letters on a letterboard thus proved to be a struggle, but Chinitz was persistent in her teaching.
Over the next several months, Chinitz graduated her son to smaller letterboards with the complete alphabet. After more than two decades of being told by professionals that her son would never communicate with her, Alex began spelling in complete sentences.
Upon learning that Alex was understanding and now conveying his thoughts with her, Chinitz became inspired to teach various subjects to other young autistic people in the area. She began hosting S2C (spelling to communication) classes on Thursday nights at her home. Later, she began teaching group lessons in classical music. “The next thing I knew, I was teaching them the elements and the history of opera,” she recalls. Her company had grown exponentially, and by the fall of 2021, Chinitz incorporated her company and moved into professional space.
Mouth to Hand Learning Center offers group classes in various subject areas that include mathematics, history, english, and music. The center also offers individual classes with spelling or typing for communication. The practice of learning to communicate with a letterboard, or typing on a keyboard is what Chinitz describes as a “systematic methodology that starts with using stencils to teach students to control their eyes and hands.”
When Chinitz began to encourage creativity as she fostered communication, it was as if all of the language that had been pent up inside of her non-speaking students “came pouring out of them.” About a year ago, Chinitz observed this creative outpouring of songs, poetry, and stories that her students had produced and decided to compile them into a book. “Their songs are incredible. We even have our own YouTube channel,” she said.
One of Chinitz’s student's mothers is a good friend of Fran Hauser. After hearing about the plans for a book that would give a voice to young people who had previously lived their lives in silence, Hauser jumped at the opportunity to help, offering her contacts in the publishing field. “We call Fran our ‘Book Angel' because we were going to do it ourselves, but it wasn't going to be half of what it's going to be now with Fran’s help,” Chinitz says. “[She brought in] the illustrator, making it look so beautiful and professional, and it means the world to them because it's the world finally hearing their voices.”
What better month than April, Autism Awareness Month, to launch a compilation of stories, songs, and poetry from non-speakers who express themselves because of Judy Chinitz’s commitment to them?
100% of profits from sales of Spellbound: Voices of the Silent will go to scholarships and communication equipment for non-speaking autistic students in need.
As for Chinitz, her main goal has been realized: to create a haven for autistic non-speakers by giving them the educational opportunities that for most of their lives, they have been so denied.