Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Todd Risley Remembered

Todd Risley was a frequent guest of my grad school advisor, Hal Leitenberg, at the University of Vermont in the early 70s. There were two of his former students in the College of Education and he was advising them in setting up what became the Consulting Teacher program, a Masters program that provided itinerant "bare foot behavior analysts" who traveled around the state teaching teachers how to manage behavior in the classroom. Ed Hanley, one of these ed profs, was on my dissertation committee. Leitenberg was an early JABA Associate Editor, so we often helped with reviews. I had a chance to work with Risley when he led the AABT Consultation Service and I was a Regional AAMR President, and I asked him to consult with the Region X AAMR organization on developing behavior modification guidelines for people with MR. It was billed as "the first "interorganizational consultation" for AABT. As a part of this effort, Risley submitted to a "cracker barrel" conversation with me at the 1983 Annual Convention of AAMR Region X (New England, Eastern Canada, and NY). I was so nervous that I kept forgetting that I had asked the same question; I think I asked him three or four times if he was also a member of AAMR (of course, he was). He was tolerant and encouraging and really assisted with my career in that organization. Much later, he was the expert on an Alaska due process case for the school and I was on the other side, with the family. While we were waiting to have a chance to testify, we talked the situation over in the parking lot outside the hearing room. He listened, offered that he just "defending his turf" in Alaska, and we came to an understanding the family's autism consultant (a former student of Lovaas, McEachin) was not "horning in" on his turf and would work with him in using University of Alaska vocational resources. He had a "little talk" with the school's lawyer and the case was settled in the family's interests. After that, we communicated some, and he shared with me his model for early intensive behavioral intervention, which we adapted for the families with which I worked with my students before Children's had the Autism Program as it is now constituted. He shared with me a story that I found memorable about the discovery of generalized imitation training. Apparently, he and Jim Sherman were working with an autistic individual during their early days at Mt. Ranier State School in Washington State under Sidney Bijou. They had succeeded in training this person, who showed the classic imitation deficit, to imitate any action that a trainer modeled, an important first step in creating functional communication. This is because, once generalized imitation is achieved along with generalized matching to sample, you can use it as an errorless prompt to associate words with objects and actions. Well, they were excited and proud about their success. They called their colleague, a young Ivar Lovaas over to demonstrate their achievement to him. They showed him the person could now imitate any novel behavior that they modeled with few if any errors. He said Lovaas said,"Ivar said, 'I'm going to use that.' And you know what? He sure did. I just told him," Risley said, "just remember that it is spelled R-I-S-L-E-Y. But that was the part he always forgot." We corresponded a bit after that. Division 33 of APA honored him with its Edgar Doll Award for his work in documenting how children who learn to talk do so. The data base he collected for that research, written about with Betty Hart in two books, was characterized by Dr. Anderson, Head of NICHD at NIH, as a National Treasure. So was he. His living Environments Group at KU pioneered the standards for commercial day care and also institutional management (the latter was the model for programming at Heinzerling when it started), his grad students established the protocols for attaching age levels to toys in terms of their attractiveness to children at different ages, and he assisted us in North Carolina as an expert advisor to the North Carolina SIB Project at Murdoch Center under Steve Schroeder. Every time he touched my life, he helped. I'm sure that was just his style.

No comments: