Feral and Autistic Children:

University of South Florida
EDF 6211 Foundations of Educational Psychology
Feral and Autistic Children:
Integrating Disabled Children Who are Inept of
Human Socialization & Development into
Education and Society - A Literature Review
Carolyn G. Ford Burac
The issues of integrating socially inept children into the classrooms have been challenging for the
students, teachers and parents alike, as well as understanding Autism Disorder and the Mowgli Syndrome
on a human level remains a work in progress.
Although the root cause of these two conditions
is different, both are very much similar in nature
regardless of the biological or environmental
For the purpose of this literary review and simplicity, the term
feral will be used instead of Mowgli Syndrome. Mowgli
Syndrome is a term that is often given to children that are found
with severe cognitive and/or physical deficiencies that are not
the result of any biological cause, but rather are due to severe
neglect. These children originally comprised two recognized
outcome of the children’s state. The purpose of
this paper is to explain the connection between
Victims of psychogenic dwarfism due to severe
abuse and neglect by their parents or guardians, or
Feral children, who are children that grew up
outside of the influence of civilization.
autism (Nature caused condition) and feral
(Nurture caused condition) children by evaluating hypotheses, theories, and studies. Research will reveal
that these socially developmental conditions in fact are only differentiated merely by cause. In addition,
this paper will discuss how developmental disorders impact education on a global scale and the purposed
solutions of integrating these students in education. The study of children reared in complete or nearly
complete isolation from human socialization or born with developmental inflictions can provide important
information to psychologists studying various aspects of socialization and education (Candland). Case in
point, when children who were born healthy become feral (from abandonment and/or abuse) return to
human society, they often continue to be seriously retarded, raising the question of whether or not such
children (autistic and feral) with developmental abnormalities can receive both fair and equal educational
efforts as well as improve their intellectual ability and function in a normal, civilized society.
From the early 1900s, autism has been referred as a range of several psychological conditions. The word
“autism,” which has been in use for almost 100 years, describes conditions in which a person is removed
from social interaction − hence, an isolated self (Williams). The autistic disorder was first described by
Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, who discovered eleven cases of a uniquely different
“mental” disorder and created the new label ´early infantile autism´. (Please note that self isolation is
the main symptom of autism.) Often, autism was confused with several other disorders which may have
similar behaviors such as Heller's Disease, Rett's Syndrome, Tourette's Syndrome, and Asperger's
Syndrome to name a few. However, neither the term feral nor the Mowgli Syndrome was ever mentioned
to be a form of autism with the exception of the feralchildren.com website. The word feral comes from
the Medieval Latin version of feralis, meaning uncultivated. A “feral” child is a human child who has
lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has no (or little) experience of human care,
loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language. In the U.S., the first pronounced studies of
cognitive and behavioral development in human social interaction was presented in the early 1970s, when
a social worker discovered a possibly autistic young teenager− Susan M.Wiley (commonly known as
Genie). Later, it was revealed by authorities that Susan was a victim of abuse and had been severely
neglected by her parents in their home.
Causes of Developmental Disorders
The Autism Society of America, ASA, purports that some researchers are investigating the possibility that
under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in
autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as
environmental factors, such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental
chemicals. Nonetheless, there is no definitive answer on the single most accountable root of autism. One
of the main characteristics shared by feral children is that they lack memory and self-awareness
(McCrone, London). Feral children are minimally exposed to human social interactions or they may
experience complete isolation and confinement of human social interaction. Feral children, can be viewed
through one of Charles Horton Cooley's theories on human interaction. Cooley, who lived in the late
1800s, created a theory that summed up how human development occurs, capturing the theory in the
concept of 'the looking glass self'. This theory had three primary elements: we imagine how we appear to
those around us, we interpret others' reactions, and we develop a self concept. The basic gist of it is that
we look at those around us, and base our appearance and social interactions on what they do and what
they expect. If an isolated child base his actions on other isolated individuals or no one, they will develop
little or no basic interaction skill (Hehrer).
Aside from the causes of both conditions, feral children and autistic children share the common theme of
self isolation.
Nature vs. Nurture: Language
Language is the human use of spoken or written words as a communication system and it includes a
system of communication based on signs, gestures, or inarticulate sounds. According to Lev S.
Vygotsky, an educational psychologist, a clear understanding of the interrelations between thought and
language is necessary for the understanding of intellectual development. Language is not merely an
expression of the knowledge the child has acquired.
"Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about."
(Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality, 1964)
There is a fundamental correspondence between thought and speech in terms of one providing resource to
the other; language becoming essential in forming thought and determining personality features
(Vygotsky). Based on the work of Vygotsky, sociocultural theory presents the perspective that children’s
cognitive structures are developed through the actions and speech of their caretakers and are transmitted
through social interactions. It follows then that there will be culturally coded styles of speech and
interaction, which will result in culturally related patterns of thought. There are five stages in language
acquisition: cooing, babbling, one-word utterances, telegraphic speech and normal speech. The critical
period hypothesis was proposed by linguist Eric Lenneberg in 1967. The Critical Period hypothesis
states that the first few years of life constitute the time during which language develops readily and after
which (sometime between birth and ending as early as age 4 and as late as early puberty) language
acquisition is much more difficult and ultimately less successful (Siegler). This brief window of time for
language acquisition also applies to the development of other attributes that separate humans from
animals, such as abstract thinking. Depending on variables, this is why some researchers speculate that
feral children may never acquire the ability to assimilate into society, while recent research has shown
that when mothers follow their children’s focus during play interactions with their 4- and 5-year-old
children with autism, later gains in social communication and language development are enhanced.
However, at age 14, when the critical period should be finished, Susan Wiley made progress. She had
learned how to feed herself, dress, act more appropriately in company, and remarkably learned many new
words with the assistance of linguist Dr. Susan Curtiss. However, when the National Institute of Mental
Health disqualified Susan’s research grant, her linguistic therapy stopped (Johnson). Susan’s development
regressed severely, returning to her coping mechanism of silence, and adding a new fear of opening her
mouth. The new fear of opening her mouth developed after being severely punished for vomiting in one
of her foster homes; she didn't want to open her mouth, even to speak, for fear of vomiting and facing
punishment again. With the exception of the unfortunate lack of funding for Susan’s case, research
showed that it is possible to learn some language outside of the critical period, but also that syntax
appears to have some privileged role. The amount of language that can be learned after the critical period
seems very limited (Harley).
Social Behavior and Interaction
Research suggests that it takes the interaction with other humans to develop a form of communication
with any degree of complexity. Learned humans are the result of complex interactions between the
environment and our genes. Feral children raised in isolation are found to be quite uncivilized and barely
able to walk or talk. They are unable to empathize with of the needs and desires of other humans −they
don't even identify themselves as human. The concepts of morals, property and possessions are alien to
them. Many of them prove to be surly, uncooperative and self-centered individuals (Perry).
Unlike feral children, whose condition resulted from abuse and neglect after birth by caregivers, autism
disorder is present from birth or very early in development. Autism is a developmental disorder of
neurobiological origin that is defined on the basis of behavioral and developmental features (Rumsey,
Vitiello, Cooper, and Hirtz) and it affects essential human behaviors such as social interaction, the ability
to communicate ideas and feelings, imagination, and the establishment of relationships with others. In
addition, some of these symptoms are often common in feral children. Children who are autistic resist
cuddling and holding, they prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world", and may be
unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain (Mayo).
Interestingly, feral children also lack sensitivity to neurological stimuli. For example, it was reported by
Marilyn Rigler (wife of psychologist, Dr. David Rigler), when Susan Wiley was asked to run her own
shower water, she observed the water to be “Icy cold.” Mrs. Rigler stated to Susan, “Oh! This is so cold,
you’re going to freeze.” Mrs. Rigler stated in a video documentary it was as though it didn’t make any
difference to Susan about the temperature of the freezing water (NOVA). Autism-like conditions
generally has life-long effects on how children learn to be social beings, to take care of themselves, and to
participate in the community.
Obviously research studies in this field are of major importance to educators to whom knowledge of
language, moral, and overall neurological development of students of all ages is of vital concern when
designing educational programs and instructional techniques.
Integrating Autistic Children in Education
The global problem: Teacher Shortage for Special Education in America
Nowadays, the only way of solving the problem of autism is rehabilitation, the aim of which is for an
autistic person to achieve the best level of functioning in a society. Aside from the overall shortage of
teachers looming over the heads of the educational system in America, recruiting qualified special
education teachers seems to be as challenging as researching the causes of autism and treating autisticlike children. In a series of reports written for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s
Future− Stanford University, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond found that even when newly certified
teachers enter the workforce, they are frequently not certified in areas of greatest need, such as math,
science, and special education (Chaika). The reality of the circumstances are that autistic children and
their families live in every cornerstone of America− even rural, urban and inner-city communities, areas
where there are already a plethora of significantly lower educational support, resources, funding, high
student expectations and achievements.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future 2007 report estimates teacher attrition costs
of over $7 billion each year in America’s public schools. This figure encompasses all aspects of finding,
employing, and preparing new teachers to replace those who have left. Measuring the costs of teacher
attrition in relation to the academic progress of public school students is much more difficult to assess,
but no less significant. Low income and low achieving schools experience high teacher turnover rates.
Oftentimes teachers hired to replace those who have left are young, inexperienced, and may not be the
most effective with high-need students (NCTAF).
Other contributing factors of the shortage of special education teachers that aren’t mentioned are the
increased requirements for earning special education teacher credentials while at the same time offering
enhanced incentives to experienced teachers to elect early retirement. Special Education as a field has
historically suffered from high rates of attrition, especially in categories serving students with significant
needs, such as the seriously emotionally disturbed or developmentally challenged. The need for learning
behavior specialists, speech-language pathologists, and special education technology specialists are in
dire need. The goal for the U.S. is to establish a special education teacher campaign to offer incentives
such as a full scholarship to college-bound high school students and bonuses to existing college students
to enter into the field of special education.
The global problem: Special Ed teachers' attitudes on autistic kids in Kuwait−
− a case study
A case study was conducted in Kuwait to examine special education teachers' attitudes toward autistic
children in the Autism School in Kuwait, where they were employed. The outcome of the study revealed
that there was a need for improvement in special education programming/curriculum & instruction,
especially with regard to autism. It was determined that future Kuwaiti teachers and present teachers
would benefit from both pre-service and in-service education. Since the diagnosis of autism is relatively
new in Kuwait, teachers were not fully equipped with how to best teach students with autism. The goals
of Kuwaiti teachers were to see their autistic students become a part of society; fluency in language could
be a key factor in integrating children into society. As the result of the study, the researcher found that
there was a need for a curriculum that is designed for autistic children. Also, based on the interviews of
the study, special education teachers had positive attitudes toward students with autism and seek parental
involvement to support their work (Al-Shammari).
The global problem: China’s struggle to integrate autistic children
In China, a greater social attention to the education of children with special needs began to occur in the
late 1970s, when President Xiaoping introduced the Reform and Open Door policy. Since, special
education in China have experienced significant reform and fast development. However, education for
children with severe developmental disabilities such as autism has been a great challenge. China has an
estimated population of 1.3 billion people and approximately 1.95 million of those individuals have
various functioning levels of autism. Since 80% of the Chinese population reside in rural areas and are
economically challenged, about 75% of the 1.95 million individuals with autism have not yet been
identified or properly diagnosed.
Consequently, the education of children with autism has become a major concern in the field. Today,
most school-age children with autism are still kept out of both regular and special schools for several
reasons. First, approximately 75% of children with autism also have cognitive impairments (Gray).
Secondly, special schools were initially established for children with physical, visual, hearing, and
speech-related disabilities, or moderate cognitive impairments. Instead, children with autism are still
being institutionalized and kept from social integration.
As the practice of inclusion becomes a common in China, more educational opportunities have been
established for children with autism (McCabe). China's educational system is standardized testing oriented, and teacher performance is evaluated based on students' academic performance. Under pressure,
teachers are motivated to increase students' test scores (Deng & Manset). To facilitate the process of
including more children with autism in regular schools, the State Department of Education decided to
disregard the test scores of children with disabilities in the evaluation of general education and teacher
Although this practice can promote regular schools' acceptance of more children with autism, it fails to
ensure quality and appropriate education in China. In practice, students with disabilities, including autism,
in regular schools use the same curriculum as typically developing students, but are exempt from taking
tests designed for their typically developing peers (Sun). This practice not only impedes the proper
documentation and assessment of their behavioral and academic progress, but it reveals the ignorance of
autism disorder in both the educational field and society, implementing the practice of inclusion and
training teachers and instructional designers to develop a specialized curriculum for autistic children.
The global problem: Types of Instructional Strategies
Naturalistic behavioral strategies are forms of discrete-trial teaching in which the child’s own motives or
behavior initiate the instruction and lead to a reinforcing event (“natural reinforcer”). These approaches
are more child-centered than massed trial teaching, in that children’s motivations, interests, favored
activities, and choices figure strongly in the teaching. Two examples of naturalistic strategies are pivotal
response training and incidental teaching.
Incidental teaching consists of a chain of pre-specified child-tutor interactions. The interactions involve
materials that are highly preferred by the child, prompting and shaping techniques embedded in natural
contexts, and child-initiated (“natural”) interactions. Incidental teaching has been demonstrated, with
replication, to be an effective technique for increasing language learning in both typical children (Hart
and Risley) and in children with autism (McGee et al.).
In pivotal response training (Koegel et al.), certain behaviors are seen as central to wide areas of
functioning. Changing these pivotal behaviors is thought to change other associated behaviors without
specifically targeting the associated behaviors. Pivotal response techniques include child choice,
reinforcement, and correcting behaviors.
Peer-mediated strategies (Strain and Kohler) also demonstrate a naturalistic application of behavioral
teaching. The typical peers of a child with an autistic spectrum disorder are instructed in a more adultcentered, mass-trial approach, while children with autistic spectrum disorders are taught by their peers in
a more child-centered, naturalistic type of approach.
Because autism is not a single ailment but a complex collection of behaviors, it is extremely difficult to
bridge the educational gap between the learning needs of autistic & feral children and school
preparedness. Although autism have been discovered for almost a century and studies of feral children
have been established for centuries, the modern world is still foreign to developmental abnormalities in
children. Whatever the cause of biological or environmental autism, there is no doubt that autism poises
an extreme impact on public schools all over the globe. In addition, even if an individualized education
program were to be implemented, it is only as good as the teacher. It is quite apparent that teachers need
continuous specialized training in providing an effective learning environment for these children.
A report released by the Journal of Autism Research showed that a follow-up study by University of Utah
psychiatry researchers of 41 Utahans diagnosed with an autism disorder 20 years ago shows that they
have generally been more independent and more social, and a few even showed increases in IQs. If the
government and researchers put the attention on autism as it deserves, perhaps educators and parents
would have a better idea on early intervention and treatment. In addition, psychologists would also have a
better idea on how to help the autism in even more rare cases of feral children like Danielle Crockett
(Lierow), a 6 year old abandoned child kept in confinement since birth in Plant city, Florida.
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