In 1800, a prepubescent boy was found in the woods of France near an area called Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance. The boy was taken to a doctor, and the physician determined the boy had lived in the woods most of his life. Nobody knew where he came from. Some said he had been abandoned as the bastard offspring of nobility, or he became missing during the French Revolution. The doctors who examined him likened him to a feral creature.
Eventually, he was taken in by a young physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. He quickly noticed the boy wouldn’t speak, and surmised he was deaf. But he soon learned the boy could hear, but he would not talk at all. Itard believed the boy had been in the woods since the age of five, and guessed he was twelve when he was found, putting him in the wild for a period of seven years. The boy had many scars on his body, and very typical food tastes for someone that lived in the wild.
Itard named the boy Victor and took him to the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris. Victor was studied by a well-known doctor named Roch-Ambrose Cucurron Sicard. Itard wanted Victor to have intense and individual instruction. During these years, The Enlightenment was in full swing, so Sicard and his followers believed studying Victor could help prove the theories of the time, that man could be a noble savage. The studies did not prove this at all, and Sicard quit treating Victor.
Itard took Victor back to his home, and began to try to teach Victor to speak and to show human emotion. Had Itard not taken Victor in, he would have wound up in an institution with horrible conditions. Itard’s main goals for Victor were to teach Victor to speak, to awaken his senses, teach him ideas, and to bring Victor to a level of normal social communication. Victor had the ability to understand and listen, and even to read, but only at the most basic levels. Itard knew the only way he was going to teach Victor was if he showed respect to him, and while it didn’t help Victor reach Itard’s goals for him, it helped form the basis for many modern forms of special education.
As a result of Itard’s attempts with Victor, he has become known as the “father” of oral education for the deaf, special education for mentally and physically handicapped individuals, and behavior modification for children with disabilities. Through Itard’s methods with “The Wild Boy”, Victor was able to show empathy for people but his language and listening skills were reactive. Even though he had the ability, it was mostly in anticipation to his needs when he was in the woods. Itard used what is now known as a “sensory environment” to teach Victor.
The scars on Victor’s body have been determined to be those from child abuse, not attacks by animals in the woods. Many have guessed that Victor was born a normal child, but developed some type of mental disability. Nobody thinks Victor could have survived in the woods as a toddler, so he had to have been around human beings before he was most likely abandoned. Many believe Victor was autistic, because he was not technically deaf, but even after intense instruction from Itard, he was still not able to speak. Itard used sensory stimuli to help Victor, but the response from Victor was not what he hoped for.
Itard’s teachings with Victor helped pave the way for later educators such as Eduard Seguin and Maria Montessori, who built upon Itard’s techniques to help mentally retarded individuals around Europe. For Victor, his life was a short one, dying in 1828 in the home where he was taught that even if you have a disability, a caring hand can make life more comfortable. In a way, one could say Victor had the very first IEP.