Background to my interest in teaching children with autism


About a year after the conference in which she had been given her life sentence to the back ward of the hospital, Ruth was once more conferenced at Felicity’s request. The surroundings were the same. She was once more confronted by the wall of white-draped ‘lawyers’, and she was once more seated at the front with her ‘doctor’ and the psychiatrist-in-chief. But there was her friend Felicity sitting in the middle of the third row. She talked to him in answer to the questions put to her. Finally, she was asked what was the main thing that she thought accounted for her recovery. Felicity felt a mixture of intense joy at the last word uttered in the question, and of embarrassment at the answer. Ruth burst into girlish giggling and said it was the ‘laughing sessions’ they had shared together. All Felicity’s pride and self-importance, felt in his mastery of this new behaviour therapy and in his success in curing this incurable disease, crumbled at his feet in what he considered to be a trivialization of his accomplishment.

But it served Ruth well. Since the mere psychologist had really done nothing more than a comedian could have done, it was acceptable to the conference graciously to grant that it had made a mistake in the original diagnosis, and that the patient had recovered and could return home once more.

But the conference, unbeknown to itself, had done something else. True, it had affirmed on this occasion that it was not an infallible tool by which to achieve ‘the final diagnosis’. But it had also vacated a bed which had been consigned in its collective mind to a single person for perhaps fifty years into the future. This fact did not elude Felicity’s groping mind. Following the conference, in the fresh blush of his acknowledged success, he went to see the psychiatrist-in-chief and brashly remarked that, by the chief’s own calculations, Felicity had saved the hospital one bed for at least forty-eight years. Having allowed that idea to be implanted firmly in the chief’s mind, Felicity added that he thought it only just and fair that he, Felicity, be granted a unit of 12 back ward beds, and a nurse to service them, in which he could experiment for, say, four years with the applicability of behaviour therapy to schizophrenia. The psychiatrist-in-chief, looked benignly at Felicity, laughed uproariously, said he understood now how ‘laughing sessions’ worked, and granted the dumbfounded Felicity his request without amendment.

The rest of these tales about schizophrenia are possible because, for the next six years, Felicity was in charge of the treatment for twelve in-patient beds which were (it’s almost unthinkable to say) surrendered to the care of a wild-eyed, rebellious, impulsive young psychologist and his regular-days nurse. Now everybody who is anybody knows that these sorts of things could not have happened, and certainly not in those days. So, unfettered by the demands of reality, these tales can be told.

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