Was a Major Autism Therapy Prompted by the Need For Glasses?


Fruit Quote

I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume you’ve heard of ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis.  It remains one of the leading therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it is most commonly associated with Ole Ivar Lovaas, a Norwegian-American clinical psychologist at UCLA.  Although Lovaas has been dubbed as the father of ABA his work was heavily influnced by prominent psychologists at the University of Washington in Seattle in the late 1950s where he received his Ph.D., who are credited for pioneering the field.

I’m going to go out a little further on the limb, and entice you to get your hands on a new book on The Story of Autism by stating that it will be the best book you’ll ever read on the history (and politics) of the field.  Including its notes and bibliography the book is over 600 pages, yet reads like a novel that you can’t put down.

NPR Autism Book

One of the telling chapters in this story involves Lovaas’s mentors, Sidney Bijou, Toddy Risley, and Montrose Wolf.  In 1962 Bijou was contacted by Jerman Rose, a psychiatrist from a mental institution nearby in Seattle.  Rose sought Bijou’s counsel about a troubled 3 year-old boy, Richard, for whom no therapeutic intervention was yet effective.  The story became known as “The Dicky Study”, and was published by Risely and Mees in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy in 1964.  In a synopsis of The Dicky Study, Wolf, Risley, and Mees write that hospital records indicated Dicky was developing normally until nine months of age when his sleep patterns became disturbed, tantrums and behavioral issues emerged, and cataracts were discovered in both eyes.  During his second year of life Dicky underwent a series of operations, one of which was for the removal of his cataracts requiring him to wear glasses in order to compensate for his aphakia.  His parents tried for a year to get him to wear the glasses, but he could not stand to be touched anywhere on his head and would turn on himself and anyone else violently when the glasses were placed on his face.

As Dicky’s behavior deteriorated further, sedatives, tranquilizers and restraints were tried without success, and Dicky was ultimately admitted to a mental hospital.  In those days childhood autism was still considered a form of schizophrenia,and after three months the hospital noted some improvement in his schizophrenia but persistent refusal to wear his glasses.  The ophthalmologist warned his parents that if Dicky did not learn to wear his glasses within the next six months, “he would permanently lose his macular vision”.  It was at that point that Wolf, Risley and Mees were invited in as consultants by the hospital staff for the purpose of training Dicky to wear his glasses.


We’ll look further into the success of their approach in Part 2 …

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