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Reformed 'Wild Child' Gil Tippy Leads Murray Hill Autism School

By Mary Johnson | May 7, 2012 8:39am
Dr. Gil Tippy, 55, is the clinical director at the Rebecca School, which works with children who have developmental disorders, including autism.
Dr. Gil Tippy, 55, is the clinical director at the Rebecca School, which works with children who have developmental disorders, including autism.
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Rebecca School

MURRAY HILL — Over the course of his lifetime, Dr. Gil Tippy said he has grown from being an “out-of-control high school kid” to a self-proclaimed “nerd.”

He has racked up multiple degrees from several area universities and dedicated that intensive education to working with children who have been diagnosed with developmental disorders, including autism.

Tippy, 55, has spent the past six years crafting an extensive menu of services, programs and classes for these children as the clinical director of the Rebecca School on East 30th Street, between Park and Madison avenues.

The school uses the DIR model — also known as "floortime" — meaning the therapies are relationship-based and driven largely by the needs and individual progress of the school’s 116 students, Tippy explained.

Q: What kind of student were you growing up?

GT: I was sort of a wild kid who couldn’t read or write at all, basically. And I loved school, and I loved my classes. But my teachers would always say, “Why aren’t you doing the work?”

I almost didn’t graduate. Later on, I realized I could’ve been the subject of a lot of special education. But I’m 55 years old, and that wasn’t really the focus back then.

I basically failed out, so I had no intention of going to college. I was going to pump gas. A girlfriend’s mother ... said, “No you're not.” And she brought me to a guidance counselor.

I was basically smart. I just needed a little boost.

Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in education?

GT: Really loving teachers. My high school gym teacher, particularly, really saved my life, made it possible for me to go on.

I was a terrible goof-off and sort of headed for trouble all the time. I’d be on my way out the door to get into trouble, and the phone would ring and it would be George Wilson, my high school basketball coach.

He’d go down and open the high school gym and round up all the kids he thought might be on their way to trouble at night. And he saved my life. Truthfully.

He came to my 50th birthday party, and he’s a sprightly 85 years old. He’s the same man I knew all those years ago. Still dedicated to kids. One motivated teacher can really change lives, and I say that to the staff all the time: “You are these kids’ George Wilson." And it’s really true.

Q: Explain the DIR model for those who may not already be familiar with it.

GT: It stands for Developmental Individual Difference relationship-based model. And we work in relationships, which is how humans develop. So that’s the basic model, and it’s a model that is student-driven and it’s individualized. It’s not a model where we try to get kids to do what we tell them to do.

I always tell the staff that the curriculum of the school is us telling the children the world is a beautiful place and we’re inviting you into it.

Q: What changes have you made to the school since its inception?

GT: I’m really proud of the mental health department because, when we sit down as a mental health department, we have more people in the room than the large children’s hospitals here in the metro area.

We’ll have 25 people in the room — so that’s psychologists, social workers and music therapists — and all of them have opinions, which are taken equally. So nobody stands above anybody else in that room.

Q: What have been some of your most poignant moments at the Rebecca School?

GT: We’ve had such lovely relationships and success with kids.

There was a kid who came in who didn’t speak at all and was entirely mute in his previous program. And he came into our program and just flourished.

If you encountered this kid on the street today, you’d have no idea he ever carried a diagnosis. He produced music videos of music he had written. He really became a star of a kid.

We have a little girl right now who is moving to a less restrictive environment. After four years of really hard work by our staff, [she] is talking and laughing and relating and is going to move on.

I could do a thousand of those stories, truthfully.