League for Emotionally Disturbed Children, “The Mentally Ill Child in the Public School,” May 1958

League for Emotionally Disturbed Children brochure, Box 3, Folder 1. Courtesy of the Brooklyn College Archives and Special Collections, The Papers of Dr. Lauretta Bender.

Complete original source available here.

Founded in New York by a group of 20 parents in 1950, the League for Emotionally Disturbed Children opened an experimental private day school in Brooklyn in early 1953 to provide education for children with severe behavioral and emotional disordersall of them excluded from public schools. This excerpt comes from a proposal that a model segregated class for emotionally disturbed children be offered under the joint auspices of the League and the New York City Board of Education in order to make good on the promise of an equal right to education. The cases of Leonard and Shelly, who attended the League’s own school, illustrate that children with autism were included under the “emotionally disturbed” label. They were frequently diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. 


Leonard is compulsively preoccupied with lights, switches, strings and electric fans. When these stimuli are near he manifests intense hyperactivity, disorganized behavior patterns and a borderline state of panic. For several months he refused to participate in any activity for more than a few minutes at a time. Whole days were punctuated with uncontrollable outbursts of aggression and subsequent anxiety.

When he was not disabled by his obsessions, Leonard revealed a highly intelligent personality and a good learning potential. Since he was quite verbal and keenly aware of his environment, it was felt that he was ready to learn to read. Like most schizophrenic children, he was tremendously threatened by any new learning situation.

Instead of waiting for his conflict to be worked through, it was decided to utilize Leonard’s pathology in the learning situation. Leonard started learning words through picture associationsbut only words that had special meaning for him: light, string, fan, parachute, etc. After these words became part of his working vocabulary, he accepted the idea of learning enough to be able to make a sentence.

Slowly neutral words such as “cup”, “ball”, “house”, “tree”, etc., were introduced. Former anxiety was mobilized for a short time every morning into excitement over mastering a new skill. Compulsivity was directed into printing a list of words every day.

Leonard has a definite reading period every morning which gives new structure to his day and to which he reacts with great enthusiasm and interest.


Shelly clings to his teacher for protection and support whenever he is faced with an unfamiliar or threatening situation. He is extremely fearful of any new academic experience, convinced that it will be too difficult for him. Trial and error learning is rejected by Shelly because he cannot accept the frightening possibility of failure.

Shelly’s daily ritual of academic work and homework must have sufficient sameness in it to make him comfortable. He must always sit in the same chair, to the left of his teacher, and with his ever-present shoelace that he jiggles in his hand. His previous day’s homework must always be checked before his lessons can start. “I don’t enjoy this,” “I’m bothered,” and other distress signals and reactions follow the introduction of anything new. Slowly, cautiously, gradually, with proper dosage and timing, new materials and routines become part of the familiar, lose their threat and are accepted.

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