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Isabelle: The Story of a Child Kept in Extreme Isolation

A feral child is a human child who has lived away from human contact from a very young age, and has little or no experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language. Feral children are confined by humans (often parents), brought up by animals, or live in the wild in isolation. This is the story of Isabelle.
Children, aged six, suffering from rachitis and showing severe deformities compared to normally grown children. Credit: Wellcome Images

Isabelle was born in 1932. She was an illegitimate child and was kept in seclusion for this reason. Her mother had developed normally up to the age of two years and then, as a result of an accident, had become deaf-mute and had not been educated. From the day Isabelle was born until she was a little over six years of age, mother and child spent their time together in a dark room with the blinds drawn, separated from the rest of the family. The parents of the mother did not permit her to leave the house alone. She eventually escaped, however, carrying her child with her, and in this way Isabelle’s case was brought to the notice of the authorities.

As a result of lack of sunlight, fresh air, and proper nutrition, Isabelle had developed a rachitic condition that made locomotion virtually impossible. This condition yielded to proper treatment, including surgery, and Isabelle learned to walk and move normally.

When her intelligence was first tested at the age of six and a half, her mental age appeared to be about nineteen months. In place of normal speech, she made a croaking sound.

By means of intensive training and a stimulating environment, Isabelle improved so much that she was considered a child of normal intelligence by the age of eight. Her language development had been rapid: by that time she already had a vocabulary of 1,500 to 2,000 words, she enjoyed and could recite nursery rhymes, she could tell a story and make one up. She could now create and share with others a world of imagination and was not confined in her use of language to the immediate and the concrete.