Interview with Tristram Smith
Conducted by Josh Pritchard, MS, BCBA (Co-editor, Science in Autism Treatment)
and Allyson Ross, BS
We chose, in this issue, to interview board member Tris Smith, as he worked closely with, and knew well, the late Dr. Ivar Lovaas. We have the great fortune to have Tris's contributions to ASAT through his active role on our board. We hope you enjoy this brief insight into Tristram's life and history.
Q: Before we get into questions about your "job"…what kinds of things do you do outside of work, for fun?
A: I'm mostly a home-body, spending time with my wife and 7-year-old daughter. My 18-year-old son recently started college. When I have spare time, I like to create family photo albums and scrapbooks, cook, read general science books, go for hikes, play chess, or collect ancient (but inexpensive) coins.
Q: How would you characterize "what you do" to people that ask? If you were to give a "30-second elevator explanation" of your job..what would it be?
A: I work with children with autism and their families. My work involves providing applied behavior analytic (ABA) intervention, consulting to community providers, and conducting research to test ABA and other treatments.
Q: How did you first get involved with autism?
A: When I was in college, I had an opportunity to become a buddy for an adult with autism. He was a brilliant man in many ways. For example, he liked reading dictionaries, and he could always stump me with spelling or vocabulary words I had never heard of. He also routinely trounced me in checkers without even looking at the board or taking much time to think. However, he couldn't hold down a job, had no friends, and lived in a supported care facility. This mix of extraordinary skills and challenges was fascinating and touching to me, and it sparked a lifelong interest in searching for ways to help individuals with autism.
Q: What is your goal in your work with ASAT? How does it fit with your personal goals and interests?
A: My goal is to ensure that ASAT's website and publications present accessible, up-to-date, and accurate information about research on interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. This activity helps keep me from getting so caught up in my own research that I lose track of what else is going on.
Q: How did you first hear about/interact with ASAT to get involved?
A: Accepting an invitation from Catherine Maurice and Gina Green, I gave a talk at a conference in Pittsburgh in 1998, when the initial efforts to form ASAT were underway. I had contact on and off again with ASAT until I joined the Board of Directors in late 2005 or early 2006.
Q: What, exactly, is/are your role(s) with ASAT?
A: I'm the Chair of the Scientific Review Committee, which reviews scientific research on autism treatments, works with other ASAT committees to disseminate research findings, and consults to ASAT members on scientific issues such as interpreting the validity of news items about autism treatment.
Q: What was it like to work with Dr. Lovaas?
A: It was exhilarating. My first year of graduate school was the final year of data collection for Lovaas's now famous 1987 study. For my master's thesis, I scored the pre-treatment videos, and I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw how much some of the children had improved from these videos to the time I met them. I also had the extraordinary opportunity to witness these kinds of improvements first-hand as a one-on-one student therapist for a couple of the last children to enter the study under the direct supervision of Lovaas himself, and his superb team of more senior therapists and graduate students. Lovaas was inspirational—exuberant, outgoing, brimming with excitement about his work, teeming with ideas for new research projects, and always keen to sit down to work with a child with autism. He also was enormously generous. For example, he kept me on the payroll during an illness that otherwise would have required me to go on disability. He supported Annette Groen, Jacquie Wynn, and me as we conducted an outcome study in his clinic, diverting resources that he easily could have used for his own work. He went far out of his way to credit me and other graduate students for our contributions and to help us find jobs when we left.
Q: Wow, that does sound exciting! It seems like you had a perfect job and mentor.
A: I have to say, though, that I also had to develop a certain amount of equanimity. Lovaas could praise me extravagantly on some occasions yet give brusque criticism at other times; tell me to insert a passage into a manuscript that he would later reproach me for, excite his whole team about a new project or idea only to abandon it at the next meeting, set an agenda but then spend an entire meeting talking about something else altogether, and appear at meetings in a jovial mood or livid because of a mistake or oversight on my part. These ups and downs could be difficult, but I came to see them as a form of creative destruction that would ultimately lead to an original, important contribution.
Q: What would you like to share with our readers that may be a little known fact about him?
A: Although Lovaas's critics often accused him of wanting to turn children with autism into drones who automatically obeyed orders, the opposite was really true. He was especially proud of the unique and unexpected achievements that his graduates went on to make--one boy who made the high school wrestling team, another who experienced new-found happiness when he came out as gay, another who started a rock band, even the girl who was caught with her friends smoking cigarettes under the school bleachers (although he and his graduate students worked with the girl‘s mother to put a stop to that one!). He spent a great deal of time reminding under-graduate and graduate students of the importance of preserving and respecting individual differences. He recognized that children in his clinic were required to comply with many demands from therapists, but he firmly believed that this requirement was the best way to help them pay attention to instruction and learn skills that they could use to develop into distinctive individuals.
Q: Can you briefly describe how you think he has most impacted the world of autism?
A: Lovaas showed that children with autism did not need to be confined to institutions or segregated classes and that, on the contrary they could live, learn, and thrive at home, in their neighborhood schools, and out in their communities.
Q: Given the current state of the science, has much changed since his ground-breaking study suggesting that ABA can help children lose their diagnosis? What kinds of things are different between then and now? What has stayed the same?
A: A generation after Lovaas's (1987) groundbreaking study, his intervention remains the most studied and arguably most successful comprehensive early intervention program for children with autism. However, many other things have changed. In 1987, autism was considered to be rare, affecting about 1 in 2000 children; now, however, the prevalence is estimated at about 1 in 110 children. Accordingly, intervention programs need to be implemented on a much larger scale for many more children than anyone would have anticipated in 1987. Also, we now have much clearer information than we did in 1987 on what the defining features of autism are; this information may require revising curriculum content and possibly also intervention methods. Perhaps most encouraging for the future, after many years when Lovaas and a small handful of other behavior analysts were the only ones who were systematically studying interventions for children with autism, a large and rapidly growing number of researchers with a range of backgrounds have joined the effort to test interventions for children with autism and identify ones that are effective.
Again—thank you for your time! Your experiences and insight are very interesting and you have provided some great personal insight into a giant within the autism community.