Anticipating what life will be like with newborn twins can fill a house with the typical uneasy yet exhilarating expectations you’ve heard about. This was especially true for Dan and Lisa Feshbach, who after struggling to conceive, and enduring a difficult pregnancy, thought that with the birth of Emma and Reed, the worst of their worries were over. But instead, at age 2½, Reed, who in many ways seemed to be a typically developing toddler, was diagnosed with autism. Many personal stories have been written about the heartache and challenges families like theirs face, but it’s what the Feshbachs did to help other families that make their story unique.
Ask most people today about autism and the odds are they will likely know someone who has a child with that diagnosis. But in 1995 when the Feshbach’s son, Reed, was diagnosed, some had seen the movie “Rain Man,” but few teachers, therapists, or pediatricians, including Reed’s, had ever seen a child on the spectrum. The Feshbachs lived in San Francisco with access to some of the best resources in the country, but they could not find even one professional who had experience with kids like Reed. Their search for answers continued. Reed would need speech therapy, but due to his solid cognitive skills, the Feshbachs were assured that his language would likely evolve over time, and he might just be a “quirky kid in kindergarten.” They were extremely relieved to hear this.
So the therapies began: speech therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy, aquatic therapy, equestrian therapy, and on and on. This was when insurance companies were not mandated to cover expenses. The Feshbachs grew deeper in debt. They began selling possessions to pay for anything that might help Reed to say “Mom,” “Dad,” or even better, “Yes” or “No.”
At the root of Reed’s growing frustrations, meltdowns, and tears, was the struggle to communicate his basic wants and needs. As he retreated deeper into his own world, efforts to engage him failed. The Feshbachs were running out of steam both emotionally and physically. Reed, like many children with autism, slept fitfully, usually three hours, before waking the household. Then he would fall asleep again at daybreak. In the meantime, he might climb out of his crib and tear apart his surroundings. One time he peeled almost all the wallpaper off his bedroom walls. Concerns for his safety became a priority as Reed managed to escape locked doors and barred windows.
It was hard to understand what would engage Reed and other kids with language deficits like him. What could make him focus enough to learn to communicate? Occasionally his speech therapist might connect with Reed, but there were too many days when he was tired, sick, irritable, and unreachable. The follow-up at home was overwhelming for Dan and Lisa, who were emotionally exhausted at the end of most days. With no way to measure his progress or to leverage the money spent on the various therapists, Dan and Lisa turned their energy towards creating tools to help Reed and other kids like him. This led the Feshbachs down the road to what is now called TeachTown.
It was clear from an early age that Reed was engaged by and receptive to computer software. Reed, like typical kids, was drawn to colorful, sophisticated, animated storytelling. The Feshbacks found some computer software that helped Reed acquire a little vocabulary. He even learned a bit of Japanese! But this software did not develop pragmatic language and social skills, a critical need for children with autism. Over the next few years software appeared in the market that was created for special needs populations. However, none held the interest like the software created for his typically developing twin sister, Emma. As an entrepreneur and advocate for his son, Dan found this unacceptable.
An aha moment came when Dan saw Reed respond to a series of computer animated storybooks called Living Books. It was clear that Reed could focus and learn at his own pace when shown engaging images and characters. This software provided endless opportunities for him to grasp vocabulary and concepts. This discovery started Dan on a quest to make sure that engaging software was available for children with special needs.
Around that same time, Lisa attended a presentation by Dom Massaro, a Research Professor of Psychology and Computer Engineering, at a Cure Autism Technology conference and recognized someone with their same passion. Dan’s relentless drive helped forge a partnership with Dom, and Animated Speech Corporation was born. The first software product featured an animated tutor called TIMO who addressed the needs of children with language development delays. As their business grew, Dan shared his infectious optimism with other passionate people who shared many of his goals. Through their risk -taking, persistence, and passion, Dan’s vision to bring engaging animation to educational software for children with autism, became a reality.
In 2006, Animated Speech Corporation merged with TeachTown, which was co-founded by Dr. Christina Whalen PhD, BCBA-D, Chief Science Officer of TeachTown, an educational software company for children with autism. Dan is now the Executive Chairman of the Board of TeachTown. Dan has created an “iron triangle” for success: scientifically proven curriculum, leading software technology, and world-class animation led by Terry Thoren, a gifted animation storyteller and master orchestra conductor (aka: the CEO).
When Dan talks about TeachTown, he beams with excitement, “It’s like having another child.” The passion and creativity of the growing team at TeachTown is a dream come true for Lisa and me! We only wish that this software had been available for Reed when he was younger. It would have made quite a difference in his life.”
Reed is now 17 years old and is busy with school, therapies, and activities. His developmental age is years behind his twin sister in many areas, but Reed and his family share a life full of support, patience and understanding.
When asked what a good day with Reed is like, Lisa lets out a sigh and says, “It’s still so unpredictable. But the days when he yells “Mom, come over here!” like a typical teen, I have to marvel at the many times when I thought he would never even say ‘Mom’.”
Emma, Reed’s twin sister is a freshman at MIT studying the science of autism. She spent last summer working at the Autism Technology and Media Lab at MIT.
Lisa says, “Dan is Reed’s biggest advocate. Every day since Reed’s diagnosis, Dan wakes with a spirit of pure optimism and determination. We know these kids have a great potential for growth in communication, especially given the support of high quality products like TeachTown: Basics. At the end of the day, life is all about communicating and connecting. And believe me, there is no greater feeling than to hear another Mom tell me how TeachTown has helped her child.”