Newton parent Kelly Wallask struggled to find the right help for her 5-year-old son Knox, who has a developmental delay. After seeing many Boston-area therapists and service providers, Wallask found “the one” at Emerson College’s Robbins Speech, Language, and Hearing Center: Dorothy Brown.
Dorothy “Dorry” Brown is an unassuming, gentle-mannered woman with sandy-blonde hair and wide eyes. With a graduate degree in early childhood development and years of experience under her belt, Brown is a master at connecting with young children. Her Group Language Therapy Program at Emerson is what Wallask calls “the Cadillac of social skills groups.”
Brown has directed the Group Language Therapy Program for more than 30 years with the aid of graduate students and clinical instructors from Emerson’s Communication Sciences and Disorders Department. The program was originally housed at Children’s Hospital in Boston, but following Brown’s retirement from the hospital in 2009, the program moved to the Robbins Center, making it a solely Emerson program.
Many believe the Robbins Speech, Language, and Hearing Center to be a hidden gem at Emerson. The center and its services are sought out by people of all ages seeking help with hearing impairment, speech and language skill, recovery of speech skills after stroke or traumatic brain injury, stuttering, voice disorders, and more.
The program in which Wallask enrolled her son (after some time on the waiting list) is known as “the program” for children with developmental language and social-communication problems. Knox has pervasive developmental disorder, which places him on the autism spectrum. In Brown’s program, Knox and four other children with social-communication challenges were each paired with an Emerson speech-language pathology graduate student. The students were each supervised by a clinical instructor and Brown.
Betsy Micucci, director of clinical programs at the Robbins Center, said that Brown’s skill and influence are a big part of the program’s success and popularity. The graduate students and instructor paired with the children, she said, also play crucial roles.
“Given all Dorry has on her plate, she still conveys her genuine concern for each child as an individual as well for as his or her family,” said Micucci.
The ratio of children to adults in the program is part of what makes it special, said Wallask. “Usually in these groups there’s a ratio of about five kids and two adults. So to have a ratio that’s flipped, where you have more adults than students, is unheard of,” she said.
“[Brown] makes you feel that she’s just as concerned about your kid as you are. And she probably is,” Wallask said.
Another unique aspect of the Group Language Therapy Program is the facility in which it takes place. In the room where the group meets, there is a one-way mirror with an observation room on the other side. Students use the mirror to observe and learn, but parents are also encouraged to learn through observation of their children.
Wallask explained how critical it was for her to observe the strides Knox made during his sessions with Brown and the graduate students. She described a particularly powerful moment, when they focused on helping Knox verbalize the sounds “k” and “g,” which he hadn’t mastered. Knox’s brother’s name is Gus, a name his parents had been waiting two and a half years to hear Knox pronounce correctly.
“For me, as a mother, sitting behind the mirror and hearing my son say ‘Gus’ for the first time, my heart nearly split open with pride,” Wallask recalled.
Brown and Micucci said that the work that takes place at the Robbins Center is not familiar to many Emersonians, but they hope to change that.
“We are also teaching students a communications-related craft, focused on resolving communication issues,” said Micucci. “So we would like the community to know about us and appreciate all that we add to the richness of life here at Emerson.”