Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Of Ricky, Terry Harris, and Meeting the Haughton’s at Data Sharing
Ricky was nonverbal, and when I met him he was 16. He had lived in the backyard of his grandparent’s place in Puerto Rico where he was kept tranquil with medications, most notably Haldol. His grandparents could no longer handle his behavior and sent him to his mother, a graduate student in Boston. They put him on a plane from Puerto Rico but his sedatives wore off and he started wandering around the plane; there were federal marshals and they restrained him on the plane. When the flight reached the Boston Airport they took him to Boston City Hospital, where he had his own room, in which the windows had been replaced by plywood and he was restrained in a bed with leather restraints on arms and legs. Amego was looking for additional residential students, so when we heard about him I went to meet him. I had him released from his wrist restraints and he bit my finger. Not badly, but he wasn’t happy to meet me at that point, and it was fine with me. The next day three of us came back and he came to the lovely little house that Amego parents had restored in the middle of Bare Cove Park in Hingham.
Though he had, as far as we could tell, had little or no prior education he rapidly acquired new skills. The best illustration of his celebrity status was a visit from the Special Education Director of Boston Public Schools, who came to tour our facility and see what we had done with Ricky. We walked through our different classrooms, which were each set up to concentrate on particular kinds of learning. When we had finished downstairs we walked up to the old style gym in the Jewish Community Center we rented. At the far end of the room was Ricky, most of the way up a ten foot ladder with a hammer and a pouch of nails, hammering a 2x4 up to a structure we used for tool handling practice. The visitor was stunned. “THAT is Ricky?” was all he could say in response. Needless to say, we got to keep Ricky and got additional referrals. My staff and I were all very well trained in errorless learning techniques, and we were charting learning as well as problem behaviors on the Standard Behavior Chart.
Data Sharing, now called Chart Share
Chart share was a monthly part of the Boston PT community, chaired by Carl Binder and with an amazing group of PT folks. Many of our Amego teachers attended, and PT folks from out of town were often there, along with Ian and Aileen Stan-Spence, who had founded Ben Bronz Academy, Morningside founder Kent Johnson, Collaborative Director Jim Pollard and many other folks who, for the next ten years or more, were the PT community on both a national and local scale.
At the chart share on February 28, 1978 I had some seriously ugly charts to show on our student Ricky. He was terrific, rapidly learning and there were no more aggressive behaviors toward staff in either the day or residential programs. Ricky was a joy to teach, and did many clever pranks along the way to add to the enjoyment; for example one night, when everyone else was asleep, he took bedroom furniture and stacked it on top of the minivan outside. He sat quietly in the van on this dark night until it went around a corner and the furniture fell off, when he burst out laughing. During school one day he ran away from his teacher and into the office, where he opened the copy machine and upended a bottle of isopropyl alcohol into it. No harm no foul, but the best was when the teacher denied he could have done it. Though he was about 200 pounds and not stealthy, he was very quick!
Withdrawal from Haldol
Along with these jokes he had steadily developed into a major and marvelous success story. I was going to present charts on his reading, his assembly skills, and his signing. Unfortunately, during the Blizzard of ‘78, only a few weeks before the chart share, he wound up in withdrawal from the medications he was taking. Haldol withdrawal leads to severe pain in your head, and he began banging his head with his closed fists, just above his eyes. Headbanging was something he had never done with us previously and was a terrible thing to see since he had come so far, and this behavior was blocking all his skills. He had blackened both eyes hitting them with closed fists, and rarely stopped wincing and then banging at his head. It was horrifying to see, as he was such a charming, successful student who was the hallmark of our skills as teachers and behavior changers. So, my charts had a different quality than I had expected when I went into the March 1978 meeting.
In the back of the room was a man wearing a turtleneck and a big medallion. I didn’t know him but after I had finished showing Rick’s charts, he started asking a lot of questions. We had Ricky doing reading—since he was learning to sign, he was signing the handful we had taught him, which were arranged on a grid on a sheet of paper. “Eat, drink, bathroom, and several others that were in his lexicon would be signed when he touched the images on the paper. He was doing about 20 a minute of those. The man in the back said, “that thing you are calling reading, I don’t know what that is. Reading is 200 wpm aloud. What you are doing there is not it.” That man was Dr. Eric Haughton, who in that one evening taught me a revolutionary way of understanding learning. I recognized his name from journal articles, but the man was so vibrant and direct that he seemed super human.
Eric asked me about the assembly task Ricky was doing, in which he could assemble one 9-piece pen in two minutes. He asked it like this; “So he is banging his head at twenty times the rate he can assemble those pens.” The only answer I could come up with, which I was smart enough to keep inside, was “He’s the best we have at putting those pens together.” It was a very tough moment, but his questions exactly paralleled thoughts I had been having about our extensive use of careful backward chaining and errorless teaching. Our teaching was wonderfully done, by a staff who was very thoughtful and experienced. But it was insufficient in the long run! We needed to strengthen the core of what we were teaching, and we had not found a way to do that. Our lovely sequences, when interrupted, did not restore themselves. Once a student had moved to a high frequency behavior like self-stim, or, with Ricky, to headbanging, the disrupted chains were insufficiently strong to bring that student back.
Students are going to encounter many rough and challenging spots in their life experiences. Not everything CAN be errorless, and not everything is more useful, more easily applicable when it has been learned in this careful environment. Could we backward chain our student’s way to a college education, or even to a useful life doing assembly or other work? Those enormous questions remain current, as a visit to a modern ABA program proves immediately. Discrete trials have the same flaw as our carefully programmed instruction almost 50 years ago.
And what about the competing movements that our autistic learners make? A well taught sequence that the student did smoothly on Friday is full of interfering little stimming behaviors by Monday. What about that? We are not going to punish these little interfering movements, but our lovely, well taught sequences did not hang together when those behaviors appeared. How do we go forward from there?
Moreover, our reading program, which was very well designed, ran beautifully from September to May. Over the summer, when we concentrated more on recreation and physical education, the entire sequence of last year’s learning was wiped away. So, the academic learning of most of our students was like castles made of sand and slipped into the sea eventually.
Eric Haughton’s New Door
Eric was opening a new door. The weakness of our efforts was due to a very limited view of what needed to be developed. We were essentially trying to teach Mozart to new pianists who had never touched a piano previously. Our students could NOT do the fingerings, did not have the kind of fluent control of their movements and discriminations that were required. Consequently, skills we taught them were far beyond their present abilities. There was nothing wrong with the skills! What was wrong was the student’s starting places. They simply did not possess all the discrimination and movement skills that would enable success. We needed to find new ways to teach those!
Elizabeth Haughton Shows Us How
I was still reeling from this entirely different way of looking at learning when Elizabeth Haughton got up to talk about Terry Harris. And while I had been foundering there, she now illuminated exactly what Eric was talking about in a simple and very compelling way.
The first and most obvious attribute of Elizabeth Haughton is her warmth and the high regard she has for all her students, and this night in particular, Terry Harris, a kindergarten student that she was teaching at the time. She began by printing his name on a white board. She said that she had seen that Terry was a remarkable learner and had immense potential, but she was afraid that other teachers might miss that, so she thought it would be important for her to teach him how to write his name, so that when he reached first grade, he would be just like everyone else. But Terry was not exactly “just like'' everyone else. He was quadriplegic, and his mom had fought long and hard to keep him out of the special education basement programs and in the regular education program. Jan Harris was ready to fight anyone who did not do their all for Terry; in Elizabeth and Eric she found the best allies a parent could have. But that was a recent development, and only a piece of what happened next. Each of Terry’s letters as he learned to write TERRY took a long time for him to acquire. It went like this: T-3 weeks, e-4 weeks, r, also 4 weeks but there were two of them, and finally y, an additional 3 weeks.
Now fourteen weeks into the new school year it was Christmas break. Elizabeth was home with Eric and was thinking about Terry. She thought that it had taken a LONG time to reach the point they had with name writing, and though there were two r’s in his last name, it seemed like perhaps there might be a better way to teach it. So, she brought it up to Eric. He said something revolutionary.
He said “Elizabeth, can Terry write 250-200 strokes, or ones in a minute?”
Elizabeth said something like, “Eric, you don’t understand, Terry is quadriplegic.”
Eric said, “Elizabeth, I didn’t ask what he looked like, can he do those strokes that rapidly or not.” Back to Eric she said, “I will find out.” Eric said, “what about O’s, can he write 140 to 100 of those in a minute? Elizabeth had learned her lesson, so she said, “I don’t know, but I will find out, but Eric, why do those things matter?”
“Because Elizabeth those movements are the elements of handwriting. If they are not mastered then putting the larger pieces together will not work. And we can measure what it means to master a skill, and that mastery will enable the skill to be retained, to endure when it is pushed for a longer time, and to apply it in new places.” He called these factors of fluent elements “REAPS” at the time for.
Since them many others have re-named this acronym. To me REAPS remains the best of these, as it conveys the elements that were most important to me and does not duplicate them.
After Christmas Terry and Elizabeth went back to work together. Terry could do about 60 “1’s,” or as he calls them now “sticks.” He did about 30 O’s in one minute. Each day they worked and practiced on these with the goal of bringing them to a new high level. However, after 3 weeks Terry had reached about 150 in “sticks” and 80 in O’s. Elizabeth and Terry thought it couldn't hurt to show him “Harris” once again and see how long it would take for him to learn it.
With those solid components he was able to learn to write Harris in five minutes! Instead of 14 weeks! The immense value of strong component skills was seared in my brain and remains there. The “Sticks and Circles” that Terry practiced were critical to understanding how to design instruction for our autistic students. After this we always set AIMS at 100% of “Industrial Standard,” which is set by the Department of Labor and is used in job costing. We had formerly set our “standard” at the sheltered work levels, so 25% for “Sheltered Workshop” standards and 50% for other work. We changed all our goals to reflect the best possible performances of accomplished manufacturing workers.
The Key for Learning
AND that is the key for all learning. Want to play guitar like Molly Tuttle? You must build super skills at the elemental level. Want to read with skill and fluency? Those small elements must reach REAPS levels! And once you have the elements you will still have to combine them and build them, but they will fit together, and you will have a new and powerful skill.