Tributes to Dr. Edward “Ted” Carr
Introduction by David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Earlier this summer, the autism community lost one of its finest. Dr. Edward Carr and his wife, Dr. Ilene Wasserman, were killed by a drunk driver on June 20, 2009. Dr. Carr was a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and was recognized internationally for his decades of research related to the assessment and treatment of challenging behaviors in persons with autism.
I first met Ted Carr over 20 years ago when I was a college senior at Stony Brook interested in enrolling in his small seminar on autism. Fortunately for me, I passed the interview process that he put in place. Without a doubt, my decision to pursue this career was a direct result of his class. He was an incredible professor; witty, intelligent, and he had the uncanny ability to bring to life concepts and findings from published research. He was kind enough to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. During the interview process for graduate school. I quickly learned that this incredible professor was also widely known and esteemed in the broader professional community. As I progressed in my career, my appreciation and respect for his work only grew.
This is a profound loss for our community. Although I know he had more to teach us, his legacy will continue through his students, his brilliant writings, and the transformational impact he has had on how we conceptualize treatment. Ted has left an indelible imprint on autism treatment, and his work will forever be part of the fabric of what we do. I have asked a few individuals to share some of their thoughts about Ted and his tremendous impact on the field: Drs. Ray Romanczyk, Paul Chance, Joanne Gerenser, Jane Carlson, and Len Levin.
Written by Paul Chance, PhD
Former ASAT Advisory Board Member
Ted was a professor of psychology at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, a fixture there since the seventies. He taught courses in ABA —applied behavior analysis-- and did research on the treatment of children with developmental disorders, particularly autism. Although autism is presumed to have a biological origin, ABA is so far the only treatment that has met scientific standards of effectiveness. Basically it helps children learn, through special forms of instruction, the social and cognitive skills that most children pick up incidentally. Ted not only used ABA to help children with autism get control over themselves and their lives, he also trained dozens of graduate students to do this work. And through his research he provided new insights into developmental disorders and new techniques for their treatment.
He is perhaps best known for his work on the functional nature of aberrant behavior. Years ago Ted discovered that some of the most challenging and bizarre behavior of children with autism was likely to occur when they were performing a task they found difficult. For example, when asked to make his bed, one boy made mistakes such as putting the sheet on top of the blanket. When asked to correct his mistake, he would become agitated and bite himself and hit his mother. This ended the bed-making task. The “dysfunctional” behavior was actually quite functional: It allowed the child to escape a frustrating situation. In other instances, the function of the behavior might be to obtain attention or a treat.
Ted realized that in a sense the child was communicating his or her desires. He also realized that there was nothing bizarre about the desires themselves: We all want to get out of unpleasant situations sometimes, we all want to obtain rewards. What was bizarre was the way the child communicated these desires. Ted theorized that if he taught these children more appropriate ways of communicating what they wanted, their inappropriate behavior might decline. They might learn to say, “I need help” or, if they could not speak, they might learn to point or make a gesture. Ted found that when he taught children with autism alternative ways of letting people know what they wanted, the screams, violent outbursts, and self-injurious behavior typically declined sharply.
After the fact, such insights may seem obvious, but that is the nature of insight. I can tell you that the idea that children with autism often behave bizarrely to communicate and that they can be taught more appropriate ways of communicating was not obvious to the hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, and parents who worked with autistic children decades ago.
To do this kind of work takes an extraordinary person, and that is what Ted Carr was. Years ago when Ted had a sabbatical, I asked him how he had used the time. He said that he spent part of it in Europe, working with children who were deaf, blind, and mentally retarded. I said, “That doesn‘t give you much to work with, does it?” He said, “No, but you do what you can.”
That was Ted Carr. He did what he could. Fortunately, that was a lot.
Written by Joanne Gerenser, PhD, CCC-SLP
Executive Director, The Eden II Programs
I was so saddened when I heard the news that Ted Carr and his wife Ilene were killed in a car accident in Long Island. I first met Ted when he was our keynote speaker many years ago at the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis. I had read much of his work and was so excited to actually be able to have the chance to meet him. We then presented together a variety of times over the years. Whenever the hosts of the conference planned a speakers' dinner, I always made sure I grabbed the chair next to Ted‘s. I can honestly say that every single time we chatted, I learned something new that somehow influenced my work with children with autism in a positive way.
As I sat down to write this tribute to Ted I tried to decide what to focus upon. Should it be the incredible work he did in functional behavior assessment? What about his brilliant work in the development of functional communication training? Or maybe it should be about his work as a highly respected teacher, both at State University of New York at Stony Brook and in the community at large through his workshops and lectures? Perhaps it should focus on the work Ted and his students did on quantifying such elusive concepts as happiness, friendships, and other essential factors that contribute to a good quality of life. I decided that it would not be possible to even touch upon on all of the important contributions that Ted made to the field of applied behavior analysis and to the lives of people with autism and their families. There are simply too many and doing so would truly require a book.
So instead, I will focus on the three things I truly admired most about Ted. The first was his willingness to listen and to discuss issues. Although Ted and I may not have always agreed on all issues in the treatment of individuals with autism, he always listened with great interest, respected my opinions and generously provided me with his wisdom and perspectives. The second thing that I loved about Ted was how much he cared about the quality of life of people with autism and their families. I believe that this was clearly the driving impetus for all of his work. Finally, one can not write about Ted without discussing his sense of humor. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity over the past decade to spend time with Ted, laugh at his dry sense of humor, and learn from one of the best. He will be truly missed, but his contributions to the field will be a part of us forever.
Written by Ray Romanczyk, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor
Director, Institute for Child Development, Binghamton University
In the two weeks since Dr. Carr‘s death, understandably many tributes and reviews of Dr. Carr‘s work and contributions have been presented to honor this important contributor to the field of autism. I still recall vividly his paper “The Motivation of Self-injurious Behavior: A Review of Some Hypotheses” back in 1977 and how it served to place into strong focus the importance of antecedent and well as consequence in the behavioral equation. His work has been incorporated into, and influenced, the many different forms of behavioral approaches. He leaves behind legions of students, colleagues, and families he has touched so profoundly. His professional legacy will endure for a very long time.
But aside from his enormous professional contributions, I grieve for my friend Ted. We met more than 35 years ago as energetic wide-eyed graduate students, well before autism was a hot topic. I remember Ted for his kindness, energy, and wit, and that I always had fun when I saw him. Some say he had a dry sense of humor. I just thought he was hysterical with his keen insight based humor that had an incredible “bite”, but he was always playful, genuine, and engaging. I recall fondly the verbal jousting matches we had right from time we first met, that prefaced each of our subsequent contacts, whether sitting in a restaurant or at a formal committee meeting. The topics were usually not about professional issues, but would be wide ranging, usually focused on the absurdities of life. The joust would last 5 or 10 minutes until we would both say “uncle” and call it a draw, resting a bit after the interchange. We would then talk about important things, and for Ted that was always about family, before we would have to move on to the professional issues at hand. I will miss Ted the person very much.
Written by Jane I. Carlson, PhD, BCBA,
The Groden Center, and Len Levin, PhD Coyne and Associates
Mentor (men-tawr, -ter), noun. 1. A wise and trusted counselor or teacher; 2. An influential senior sponsor or supporter.
Ted was our mentor. We had the distinct honor and pleasure of being Ted‘s graduate students at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We are among the fortunate few who were able to spend years working so closely with this warm, witty, wonderful, brilliant man. He was our mentor in the truest sense of the word. Always approachable, Ted was incredibly generous and open with us as students and as people. Through his skill as a researcher, we learned how to think about problems, the technical aspects of planning and implementing research projects, and the art of technical writing. Through his incredible empathy towards others, we learned the importance of service, of the quality of a person‘s life, and the persistence that it takes to address problems that really matter.
Ted was incredibly supportive of us as young professionals. He involved us in a variety of projects and activities to ensure that we were well rounded as professionals. He introduced us to his colleagues and collaborators and encouraged us to reach out to others whose work we found interesting. He‘d say, “Call him/her and introduce yourself. Tell them you‘re my student.” When we did, we were always greeted warmly and often regaled with a funny story of that person‘s time with Ted. Even quite recently, more than a decade out of graduate school, colleagues would say that they‘d seen Ted and when he heard that they worked with one of us, he would sing our praises.
In the initial wave of grief that followed Ted's death, many of us who had studied with Ted reached out to one another. We communicated across the country via e-mail and telephone to once again share our common experience. Many of the conversations began with tears and ended with laughter as we recounted the days working in the lab, meetings centered around the consumption of chocolate, and our sometimes hilarious misadventures as young researchers. We also talked about the themes that ran through our individual relationships with Ted; the lessons that he taught us individually and collectively that set us on a path to become mature professionals. We discovered that, across the continent and quite independently from each other, we began many of our training sessions with parents and direct service staff with the same lecture on systems of truth; a philosophy of science lecture that was a Ted Carr standard and creates a context for thinking about evidence-based practice. As we struggled to put into words what Ted meant to us as individuals, we were struck by the depth with which the lessons imparted during those graduate school years had affected our professional lives.
Many tributes will be written to Ted, and all of them well deserved. Ted was truly a giant in the field of autism and developmental disabilities and his work has had an immeasurable impact on research and practice. Much will be written about his numerous publications, his involvement in professional activities, and the honors and awards he collected throughout his career. We pay a different sort of tribute to Ted; a tribute to the important role he played in our lives, his role as mentor. It would be impossible to impart all of the lessons learned from our years working with Ted so we‘ve selected a group of “Ted-isms” to share that represent a sample of the wisdom that he passed along.
“There are no treatment packages, cookbooks, or recipes.”
Ted taught his students that analysis was paramount and there are no short cuts. In Ted‘s uniquely entertaining, engaging, and ultimately enlightening way, he would frequently mock less sophisticated intervention agents by dramatizing a scenario (doing something like a Woody Allen impression) during which a frazzled psychologist would frantically flip through a textbook saying to himself, “What am I supposed to do for aggression? The book says to use Time-out… Done!” There would be some laughter and then Ted would become very serious and say something like, “…A prescription for failure.” The brilliance of this guiding principle goes beyond the analysis of problem behavior. In 2009, many of us still encounter so-called ABA-based programs for children with autism in which every single child in the program receives the same treatment package: the same exact augmentative communication system; unvarying teaching procedures for every target objective; identical visual supports/schedules; etc. Every child in the program receives the same recipe. Ted taught us to avoid such an approach; inevitably, that approach is a prescription for failure.
“The bad data point is often the most interesting.”
In graduate school, the focus is on a set of research products and, as we well know, research does not always go as anticipated. The odd outlier data point can often extend a phase of a project and heighten the anxiety of a graduate student facing a deadline. Ted would say, with a wry smile, “So, what did you learn from that?” He would empathize and then help us to understand that failure in treatment research can be as informative as success. Analyses of the things that don‘t go according to plan can become the impetus for the next treatment innovation. With the signature grin returning, he would occasionally express this idea another way: “There‘s a reason it‘s called re-search.”
“Write so that people who need the information can understand it.”
Writing for an audience of colleagues is an important vehicle for sharing information. Equally important to Ted was writing in a way that was accessible to the person who would ultimately need to solve a problem, implement an intervention, teach the skill: the parent, the teacher, the direct service worker. Ted would have us hand over our papers to other students from different orientations, people in the community, our parents, to ensure that the concepts being presented were clear and comprehensible. “If a classroom teacher or parent can‘t understand what you‘ve done, you haven‘t done anything.”
“Systems of truth”
Ted was a scientist working in an applied field with interdisciplinary teams whose members were often not trained in the methodologies of science. Ted was a psychologist whose broad range of colleagues in the larger field of psychology were comprised of many different orientations, many not rooted in a scientist/practitioner model. Ted was an advocate working with families who were desperate for assistance and relief and who would often turn to “alternative” treatments with the hope of obtaining better outcomes for their children. While Ted‘s diplomacy skills with respect to navigating the dynamics of an interdisciplinary team meeting, for example, were unparalleled, we can only presume that these situations were some of the setting events for his semi-annual lecture on systems of truth. At the beginning of every semester, in every course that Ted taught, he described the process by which we determine whether or not something is “true.” He talked about three systems of truth: the Authoritarian system, the Phenomenological system, and the Empirical system. When we adhere to the Authoritarian system of truth, we believe that a statement is true because an expert or reliable source expresses that the statement is fact. When we adhere to the Phenomenological system of truth, we believe that a statement is true because our experience, albeit, our subjective experience, confirms that the statement is true. When we adhere to the Empirical system of truth, we believe that a statement is true because direct measurement following the systematic manipulation of independent variables yields reliable data that strongly suggest that the statement is true. In other words, when we adhere to the Empirical system of truth, we rely on results obtained via experimentation and the scientific method to guide our decision-making with respect to selecting interventions and modifying systems to achieve our desired outcomes.
As we mentioned above, many of Ted‘s students still use this taxonomy in our lectures and workshops today. It empowers parents as they are faced with contradictory recommendations from professionals. It inspires students and staff to pursue careers dedicated to evidence-based practice. It is the philosophical foundation on which this organization, the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, is based.
Ted‘s death leaves a huge hole in our lives. He won‘t be there now to bounce around a research idea or to offer advice on a professional problem, but his voice will continue to inform the work we do every day. He‘s shaped the way we analyze problems, the way we design intervention strategies, the way we communicate about our work, and the service we provide to people with autism and their families. His teachings have become part of our DNA; who we are as professionals and as people. For this we are forever in his debt. Ted Carr was our mentor; he was our friend.