Mommy's little angel

Marshall Ball can't talk. So he listens to God. Everyone else listens to Marshall.

Troy works part-time as a high-end real estate broker, Charlie took a job as director of real estate and construction with the Dell Computer Corp., and the two began fleshing out the hilltop compound with their children's needs in mind. By 1993 the Balls felt secure enough to adopt a third son, Luke, as an infant. They say they weren't certain of the wisdom of this until Marshall expressed his wish for a healthy baby brother. A number of trusts were established to care for the boys in the event that they outlive their parents, in which case Troy's family would assume their care. A swimming pool was installed on the grounds.

During our conversation around the kitchen counter, Coulton is wheeled in by a helper. Luke comes tearing through the house with several friends, and at least three other people -- a landscape architect, others of uncertain provenance -- come and go. Several phones ring. Troy quotes property prices expressed in quarters of millions of dollars to callers and invites them to drop by a 2 p.m. walk-around. The last time it rings she unplugs it.

Having said farewell to their prior conceptions of the good life, and despite his apparent defects, Marshall's parents decided early to treat the boy as "a perfect child" and to offer to him whatever stimulation and enrichment they could muster.

Marshall shares a moment in the main house with physical therapist Scott Williams. Marshall was born with a physical condition that renders him unable to speak or walk.
Deron Neblett
Marshall shares a moment in the main house with physical therapist Scott Williams. Marshall was born with a physical condition that renders him unable to speak or walk.
Marshall's mother draws a distinction between the widely discredited concept of "facilitated communication" and the "augmented communication" practiced with her son. Here, Marshall's grandmother Louise is "feeling off" the boy as he uses his letter-board. Family friend Laurence Becker looks on.
Deron Neblett
Marshall's mother draws a distinction between the widely discredited concept of "facilitated communication" and the "augmented communication" practiced with her son. Here, Marshall's grandmother Louise is "feeling off" the boy as he uses his letter-board. Family friend Laurence Becker looks on.

Troy read to him (Thoreau, Rumi, Emerson, Frost), played music for him (Bach is a favorite), talked to him, counted numbers for him, showered him with affection.

Finally Marshall responded.

"So one day he's sitting on my lap and I have this toy, and I just happen to have picked it up, and he's sitting here and I'm holding him like this" -- with one arm around his abdomen -- "and I have one hand supporting his torso, and he just leans forward, topples."

Toppling, Marshall hit the toy with his forehead, activating a button that made the sound of a cat's meow.

Troy asked if he could do it again. Marshall did. She asked if he could hit the dog button. Marshall toppled and punched the dog button with his head. They went through all five animal sounds on the toy with Marshall activating the correct button each time.

"It was the first time I actually had any kind of evidence from him that he was actually with me, and knew, understood. So once we realized that he was trying to make connections with his head, we started doing things like, 'Marshall, do you want to go inside, or stay outside?'" -- indicating each option with one or the other outstretched hand -- "and he'd touch this hand or that hand.

"Then, of course, we were able to take that and start extending it."

The Balls hired a speech therapist who devised word games for Marshall. Dr. Keith Turner, of the University of Texas' special-education department, worked with the Balls to develop tests to reflect Marshall's skill levels for special-ed teachers at his school. The tests, "naturalistic assessments" designed to evaluate a child's ability to function within his own environment, seemed to indicate an innate intelligence beyond the boy's years.

Troy and Charlie developed a letter-board, marked into two-and-a-half-inch squares containing letters, numerals, and oft-used phrases. There is one box for the letter "i" and another for the word "Marshall." In his writings, Marshall refers to himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third.

Charlie has arrived at the main house, and he takes Marshall onto his lap on the built-in bench of the breakfast nook. With his left hand Charlie props the board in front of his son, and with his right he cups Marshall's right elbow as the boy's clenched hand darts to spots on the board. It is not said what Marshall is writing, if anything, and I cannot see Marshall's choices from where I sit. Visiting for the first time, and uncertain as to how to go about it -- Marshall seems to be having a bad day -- I have failed to address Marshall directly. Neither has Troy offered an introduction.


The phrase "facilitated communication" describes a process, largely discredited as fraudulent, whereby the parent or aide of an autistic child places a hand over the child's hand and helps guide it to placements indicated by the child's muscular movement. It is widely theorized that in such cases the facilitator is engaged in conscious or subconscious manipulation of the child's hand.

Troy Ball is aware of this. She raises the subject first, drawing a distinction between facilitated communication -- not, she says, what's happening here -- and "augmented communication," which is her name for the process by which her son communicates to the world.

Troy's mother, Louise, later told me that she was uncertain during her first experience holding Marshall's elbow and transcribing for him, unsure that she knew how to do it.

She has since transcribed many of Marshall's communications, as have his aunt Cindy and a family friend and "educational consultant" named Laurence A. Becker.

Becker, who earned a multidisciplinary Ph.D. in "Creative Learning Environments" from The Union Institute in Cincinnati, associates himself with autistic savant artists. He also maintains at least a semiprofessional interest, he says, in the subjects of yurts, nutrition, athletics, and gang-member rehabilitation. Asked how he makes his living, he responds that he's "making a life, not a living."

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