All special education teachers know the importance of looking beyond their students’ perceived limitations and believing in their potential. Take, for example, the story of French physician Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and his student Victor, which serves as one of the earliest known examples of special education methods being used in a way similar to the way we use them today.

Most special education teachers learn about Itard and his pupil (if they learn about them at all) when they are well into their course work for their teaching credential. This is a shame, because the story of Itard and Victor is not only a glimpse at the history of educational and behavioral interventions, but it is also the story of an educator seeing a student for who that student is, rather than looking only at their disabilities.

So, what can we learn from Victor and Itard, and why do they matter to the practice of special education today? It all began with rumors of a wild boy roaming the dense woods near Aveyron, France, at the turn of the 19th century.

The Wild Boy of Aveyron

Rumors of a feral child roaming the dense woods near Aveyron, France, sneaking around in people’s gardens and begging for food started in 1799. Then in January of 1800, a “wild boy” of about twelve years old was captured and brought to an orphanage in Paris. When the boy arrived, he was dirty, and he didn’t care what his food looked like, he convulsed and rocked in his cage, and tried to hide from everyone. Almost immediately, he was diagnosed as an “incurable idiot” that was only fit for an institution, which was common for people who would now be known as someone with an intellectual disability.