In 1962, William Gibson participated along with Arthur Penn in the film, The Miracle Worker, where Helen Keller, the main character, becomes deaf and blind due to an illness she contracted during her first years of life. The doctor that treated her couldn’t find a cure to her illness which led to the horrific outcome. Helen never felt the dramatic change because she was too young to remember what was actually hearing and seeing. However, a positive effect was that Helen’s brain rewired to adapt the other senses, smell, touch, and taste, to be dominant in her daily life, in other terms her brain plasticity was exceptional. She demonstrates to the viewers that she is extremely intelligent due to the fact that in order to understand and communicate with world she has to associate every aspect of it only with three senses. As shown by the film, in order to move around Helen had to touch her surroundings to feel safe or at least know where she was. Also, she would use certain movements to interact with her parents, such as caressing her cheek to call for her mother. This gesture was essential to her because Helen would only feel safe when her mother was around, she knew that the only person who truly satisfied her needs was her mother. Nonetheless, she uses her hands to recognize people, either by touching their faces or by grabbing their clothes. Usually, to calm her down her mother would offer her cake, Helen would grab the cake and smell it to assure that it was her treat.
Certainly, Helen needed medical treatment that would help her interact with people in a more educated way. Unfortunately, disabled people were misunderstood and underestimated. Helen didn’t have any helpful treatment before Mrs. Sullivan came; her parents were planning to put her in an asylum were she would receive the “proper” care. However, an ultimate mistake that the parents made was to please her no matter what she did. The parents never taught her how to act properly during meal time so she would go around and eat everything she pleased. If by any chance someone would try to stop her ways she would create huge tantrums to have things done her way; Mrs. Keller would give her a treat so she would relax. This how the Keller family raised their kid, most likely they felt pity for her and let her do whatever she wanted. In contrast, Ms. Sullivan did not believe in pity, she knew that Helen was as able as any other kid of her age. Ms. Sullivan’s first lesson was to make Helen understand that she wasn’t a queen, she had to follow orders too. As an example, the first time the family had a supper together Ms. Sullivan wouldn’t tolerate Helen’s behavior during such an important time. She got everyone out the dining room and forced Helen to comprehend that during supper she would have to sit down, eat with silverware, and especially fold her napkin! After several tries, Helen realized that the only way to stop the reinforcement Ms. Sullivan was giving her was to obey her rules.
As far as parenting styles, Helen’s parents were permissive in every aspect of the word. They would care for her but they had zero expectations from Helen, which led to her attitude towards everything. One of the very first parts were we can see how her parents react is when she was playing in the living room, while playing she decided to grab the baby cradle and flip it when the baby was inside. The first reaction of her dad was to discipline Helen to not do that again but her mom stopped him and told him that she is not able to understand what she just did. This shows perfectly how permissive her parents, especially her mother, were. In the other hand, Ms. Sullivan was more on the authoritative side, which is the perfect balance to educate a child. She decided that in order to change Helen’s mindset she would have to take her away from her comfort zone, her house. Firstly, Helen had massive tantrums because she wouldn’t recognize the place she was in, she felt insecure. She would caress her cheek to call for her mother because she was the only one who made her feel safe but all of her cries weren’t successful. Then, she let Ms. Sullivan teach her how to properly act on a daily basis.
As stated by Saul McLeod, operant conditioning is “intentional actions that have an effect on the surrounding environment.” Operant conditioning includes positive reinforcement, meaning that after a certain behavior there is a reward, and negative reinforcement, which means that after experiencing something awful you will change the way you respond to avoid the bad stimulus. By using this technique Ms. Sullivan taught Helen how to behave correctly and learned sign language. Nevertheless, this process was not easy because Ms. Sullivan had to find a way to make Helen understand that what she touched had a word (gesture) in sign language. This is what we call associative learning, “stat[ing] that the act of remembering… any past experience would also bring to the fore other events or experiences that had become related.” (Britannica) At first, Helen couldn’t understand what she was doing, she would feel the object, person or action and Ms. Sullivan would spell out the word for her to learn. Ms. Sullivan realized that after many tries Helen was only imitating her and not truly understanding her actions. But Ms. Sullivan didn’t give up, through positive and negative reinforcement she worked with Helen. In the movie, we see how Ms. Sullivan uses the cake as positive reinforcement. She would make Helen feel, teach her the word and whenever she would get it right she would receiver her piece of cake. Moreover, negative reinforcement is also seen when
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