Defying the Odds

Vaughn Dorn

Vaughn Dorn, 18 years old and 6-foot-three, will be graduating on time with the 2019 class of Malibu High School, which is “nothing short of a miracle,” his mother said. He is a special needs student who is nonverbal and has only ever spoken two words in his entire life: “Ma” and “un-hunh” (for yes). He communicates with a computer keyboard and has demonstrated the ability to learn even the most technical subjects. 

His parents, Beth and Ryan Dorn, kept him at home with private therapists using Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) techniques during most of his early years of education. Because Vaughn had a tendency to run off, Beth said, “I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t escape from the school. I eventually agreed to let him do ABA at school, but not in the regular classroom at Juan Cabrillo Elementary.”

Vaughn did not want us to use the name of his diagnosis in this article, and feels very strongly about that.

ABA uses repetition to establish skills like imitation, sorting, pointing and discretion to strengthen neural pathways. Vaughn’s motor dexterity and other personal skills were improved with occupational therapy, which he received from the school district and Westside Regional Center.

While in his special classroom receiving one-on-one attention, Beth said he was able to hear a teacher in the library giving a class, and indicated he wanted to listen to her. He and the teacher took a shine to one another and she invited him into her class the following year.

Vaughn learned to type at the age of seven with two hands—a skill he learned from speech teacher Sharon Hensel Cohen—on a laminated paper keyboard. He now types on a regular keyboard without assistance, using a pencil. Having a lack of fine motor skills and vision that’s slightly offset makes his typing a slow process, but it opened up a whole new world to Vaughn in terms of his quality of life in finally being able to express himself and communicate his wants, needs and questions. The first kind of typing he learned was not letters and numbers, but a special assistive technology allowing him to navigate through pages of icons that represented different things. 

Vaughn requires a full-time teacher’s aide to accompany him at school, and the teacher’s aide also has a notebook computer, which they can use to help him look things up, among other things. The very first teacher’s aide he had, unfortunately, didn’t know how to type except to use the icons.

Once he started at Malibu Middle School, he got an aide that could type and he was assigned to attend regular classes instead of special education “because there was no fixed program for him and they decided to see what would transpire,” Beth said. “He started getting As and we thought, ‘This is amazing!’ Having someone who could type with him made a big difference.”

For the past five years, Vaughn has had the same person helping him during school and then after school with homework—ABA private therapist Abdul Naghshbandi—on a grueling schedule that goes from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every school day. His favorite subjects are math and science, but he also enjoys English and history—he can do square roots in his head and type out long equations. Textbooks are usually read to him or played on Kindle with Audible. 

“We thank God for Abdul every day,” both parents said. 

When asked what it was like to have Vaughn as a student, MHS English teacher Eric Carrier wrote that at first he thought a lot about how he could fully immerse him in the classroom and curriculum while meeting his needs and accommodations. 

“As I quickly realized, his support system is excellent,” Carrier wrote. “His needs [are] clearly expressed by the adults in his life, and the other students fully include him in all of our classroom activities.” 

“Vaughn’s understanding of the material is no different from any other student in the class,” Carrier continued. “Most of the time he understands what we’re discussing or doing, and when he didn’t, he asked for clarification through the use of his computer … Vaughn would occasionally have work accommodations, but truthfully he did the same work, and same amount, as any other student.

“Life in the classroom is much more diverse and rich with the full inclusion of students with special needs,” Carrier concluded.

Vaughn will be graduating with the rest of his MHS class on June 11 with a 3.93/4.0 GPA. He will attend Pepperdine University starting this summer.