1995 PCDI Conference, 17 Years Later

I attended a couple of conferences before December of 1995.  One of them was by Lovaas.  I only vaguely remember it because whatever was said or shown there, I had already learned from Lovaas’ Me-Book. I knew what discrete trials were as I watched them being done with my son and did them myself.  I went there, mainly to see the man, who started it all.   Another conference was  presented by a famous, local speech professor. He told a story about a male student who spent many years unable to communicate at ABA school. As soon, however, as the boy got an assistive technology device (or a computer program ) and learned to use it to communicate,  he typed the  message, “Take me out of here.  They are all crazy.” The crowd laughed approvingly.  Not surprisingly, the audience preferred a miracle over ABA. I did not laugh.  I don’t remember anything else from that conference as nothing what was said there  applied  to Robert’s teaching.

In December of 1995  I signed up for the PCDI conference.  The images from that conference, for better or for worse, are still  imprinted in my brain.

For better, because I learned that there were people who not only knew how to teach children like Robert but were constantly looking for novel ways of teaching.  People, who defined criteria for progress, and were not afraid to change program if it was not sufficiently effective.

For worse, because I wrongly assumed that all Robert’s teachers  would not be much different than presenters.

For better, because I learned a lot and I was able to use many of the ideas to teach Robert.

For worse, because I never was able to pass that information/ideas to my son’s teachers and thus was very often disappointed with the quality of the teaching which never quite measured up to the presentation.

Moreover, since so many people attended the conference I believed that it  would not be long before the tools/concepts presented at the conference became known to every special education teacher in Massachusetts.

The future seemed  open to progress.

But it was not.  The ideas were not a match for moldy, from lack of fresh air, walls of special education classrooms.

At that time, Robert was still not talking.  He approximated a sound for “juice” and maybe for something else. What was more concerning, he did not have any receptive labels.  It was hard to watch a presentation because  so many problems and solutions did not  relate to Robert as he was in December of 1995. His issues were the more basic and more serious.   Since Robert did not acquire language despite six months of ABA, he was one of those children that were doomed to not recover according to results of Lovaas’  experiment. As I listened to Patricia Krantz, Gregory MacDuff,  Edward Fenske, or Lynn McClannahan and watched the students performing different tasks, I wondered if my son would ever be able to get to such levels and learn the skills those students had already mastered.

I watched the students seating at the large table, working on an art project and using sentence strips to “chat” with each other.  In 1995, that was not a possibility for my son.  It  certainly would have been doable and beneficial in 2006.

I listened to criteria for transition to main stream, and I doubted if such transition would ever be possible for Robert.  It was not.  What was possible was to transition from one to one instruction to a group instruction. But again, in Robert’s placement in 2006 there was no one who would plan, monitor,and adjust program to facilitate such transition. Nobody attended the PCDI conference.

I was learning new methods, gaining new tools and yet I did not know  if my son’s development would ever allow me to apply the information I was receiving. Today, I am glad I listened even to those lectures that seemed to address needs of much higher functioning children. For once, some of them became useful later.  Secondly,  I learned not only how to deal with very specific, limited range  issues but, because the range of topics was pretty wide, it was possible to apply similar way of thinking to address problems not mentioned in the conference.  Maybe the word “generalize” would explain better what I mean.

As I watched young man emptying dishwasher with the help of  the picture schedule detailing all micro-steps required, I realized  I could do that with Robert. It took a few days to assist Robert in unloading the dishwasher, before he became completely independent.

As I watched children following picture activity schedules by choosing the puzzles and/or other activities from shelves and later putting them away, I knew that Robert could learn this quickly.  Well, he did and he did not.  His teacher was unable to make  Robert  point to the ONLY picture before reaching for the ONLY puzzle. Since Robert didn’t point, he was not allowed to complete the puzzle.  I, on the other hand,  ignored pointing for as long as it was not a functional gesture (Which it was not, since there was only one picture and one toy just in front of Robert.  Nothing to choose from.)   and let Robert to follow picture schedule of three activities.  Which he did. Meantime his teacher  kept recording failure after failure, day after day, week after week, month after month. Unable to make concession and skip pointing, the teacher stopped this program. Oh, well…

I attended other conferences after PCDI. I left each of them with one or two  tools, which, no matter how small they appeared to others, allowed  me to teach Robert and/or manage his behavior. Nothing, however, compares with this presentation.

Just a few months before this conference, we, the parents, were seating in the hospital office of the psychiatrist considered to be an autism specialist. It was a depressing event.  The psychiatrist gave us  a diagnosis and shared his  conviction that there is nothing to be done about it.  We tried to shake the gloom, but it lingered.  It was this conference that finally dispersed those feelings. I felt energized and capable if not exactly hopeful.

I felt that I not only had tools, but also the ability to make the tools myself.

I still have the binder from that conference . When I looked through its pages, I was surprised by how much of what was said 17 years ago is still valid.