The Times newspaper honours Phoebe Caldwell for her work with families affected by autism|
LONDON, UK: A woman aged 76 who has transformed the lives of thousands of families affected by autism has won this year’s Times/Sternberg Award.
Phoebe Caldwell, a mother of five and grandmother of nine, won the £5,000 prize for her work with schools, psychologists and individual families to improve the outlook for people with severe autism. The award, in its second year, celebrates the achievements of people aged 70 or over who have done most for society and good causes in their older age.
Caldwell, from Lancaster, will receive the award in a ceremony at 10 Downing Street. Five runners-up will receive £1,000 each. She was nominated by Suzanne Zeedyk, of Dundee University’s school of psychology, whose students analysed every frame of one of her films to produce empirical evidence on her technique, known as intensive interaction.
Caldwell, who often helps families for no charge and last week received calls from the Netherlands and New Zealand, describes autism as a problem of processing in the brain. She said: “What you have is a kaleidoscope where nothing settles. I use a technique. Anyone can learn to do it.” The technique had enabled almost every child she had helped to show significant improvement, she added.
It was developed when she worked in a hospital for people with learning disabilities. She was seated in a corridor and expected to supervise patients who sat leafing through catalogues “when they weren’t attacking each other”.
After Caldwell began to introduce basic play techniques, such as constructing jigsaws, one male patient presented her with a rose bush that he had ripped from the hospital’s lawns, his hands dripping with blood from the thorns as he gave it to her.
Thirty-five years on, with four training films and six books published since she turned 70, including Finding You, Finding Me, recommended as among his top three in 2005 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, she has no plans to retire.
“People are ringing up all the time,” Caldwell said. “Parents are desperate.” Her mission is to use the publicity generated by the award to further her plans to make her technique as widely available as possible. She believes that it is simple to learn from her films and books and that this approach can change almost overnight the lives of sufferers and their families.
In her nomination, Dr Zeedyk said: “Over the past 30 years, Phoebe has worked with over 1,000 adults and children, including some of the most disturbed and isolated individuals in the country.
Some have been excluded from services because staff are so frightened by their ‘challenging behaviour’.
“Yet after a few hours with Phoebe, they are sitting peacefully, sharing the moment, perhaps through finger play or rhythm-tapping, because she has been able to use their body language as a means of communication. She teaches this sensory technique to carers, allowing them, in the words of one family, to ‘rediscover the joy of our daughter’.”
]The concept of the Times/Sternberg Award arose two years ago during discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Sir Sigmund Sternberg, 88, the businessman and philanthropist who co-sponsors the award with The Times, said: “Phoebe Caldwell is an example of someone who does not retire at 65 but keeps on working. She has changed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people.”
(Source: The Times, December 21, 2009)