Home » University of Kansas » Learning from Space Child and Mechanical Robby…in memoriam of Richard Whelan

Learning from Space Child and Mechanical Robby…in memoriam of Richard Whelan

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

In describing his most memorable student, Richard Whelan said, “…I had the opportunity to work with the Space Child. He believed he was a general in outer space who commanded countless space ships. He sailed to faraway regions of space, destroyed stars, and invaded numerous solar systems. Space Child was written up in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic in 1952. On cold winter nights, this youngster and I would go outside and, using a telescope he built, chart the heavens so he could have new conquests. His knowledge of the stars was accurate. I knew this because I was a lab assistant in a university astronomy class (a good opportunity to meet girls…or young women in 1951). As I have reflected about that star gazing though, I have often wondered aloud which of us needed long-term treatment. However, I was assured by the child’s therapist that folie a deux (a shared or transmitted psychosis) was not a possibility.”

Richard (Dick) Whelan was a gifted educator, mentor, and a pioneer in the education of children withemotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). His earliest professional experiences in the 1950s were at the Children’s Hospital (Southard School) of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas where he was a recreational therapist, teacher, and director of education.

In 1962, Dr. Whelan began his career at the University of Kansas (KU), where he had academic appointments in Special Education, Psychiatry, and Pediatrics and was the Ralph L. Smith Distinguished Professor of Child Development. He served as department chair, Dean of the School of Education, and director of interdisciplinary clinical research programs at the KU Medical Center.

Whelan also directed several federal projects that supported leadership development in special education. In the mid-1970s – a critical time in the development of special education and before the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 – he served in Washington, D.C. as Director of Personnel Preparation in the Bureau ofEducation of the Handicapped, the precursor to the Office of Special Education Programs. After retiring from KU in 2000, Whelan continued to work as aprogram consultant, special education compliance investigator, mediator,  and due process hearing officer until his death on January 9, 2015. Whelan self-identified as a “humanistic behaviorist” who drew from multiple theoretical perspectives and approaches to educate students with EBD. He was instrumental in thedevelopment of special education as we know it today. In 1986, he was honored as the first recipient of MSLBD’s Outstanding Leadership Award.

The following account Dr. Whelan’s “most memorable student” illustrates his ability to draw from multiple conceptual models to understand and design treatments. No doubt his eclectic perspective was influenced by his early experiences at the psychodynamically-oriented Menninger Clinic and his later experiences at KU, where several of his colleagues conducted pioneering research in applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Whelan’s description of Robby recognizes that his aberrant behaviors reflected underlying disturbed emotions (intrapsychic perspective) and that efforts to change Robby’s behavior improved those underlying emotions (behavioral perspective).

It’s also apparent that Whelan understood Robby in the context of his interactions with larger ecosystems – the clinical settings of the Menninger Foundation and the public high school (ecological perspective). Dr. Whelan’s story of Bobby follows. 1

The Menninger Clinic

In 1925, Dr. Charles Menninger founded The Menninger Sanitarium (later Menninger Foundation and Clinic) in Topeka, Kansas. Southard School for Children opened the following year and offered an internationally recognized residential treatment program for children and adolescents, including an educational program. In the 1930s, Menninger expanded its programs to train mental health professionals including psychiatrists and psychologists; by the 1940s, Menninger’s School of Psychiatry had become the largest psychiatric training center in the United States.

Charles’ sons, Karl and William Menninger, succeeded him and together they had a huge influence on psychiatric practice, professional training, and public awareness and understanding of mental illness. Karl Menninger was author of several best-selling books, including The Human Mind (1930), Man Against Himself (1938), Love Against Hate (1942), Theory of Psychoanalytic Technique (1958), The Crime of Punishment (1968), and Whatever Became of Sin? (1973). His brother, Will, developed a system of hospital treatment known as “milieu therapy” which involved patients’ total environment in their treatment. Will also led a national effort to reform state sanitariums. In 1951, he appeared on Time Magazine’s cover as “Psychiatry’s U.S. Sales Manager.”

In 2004, the Menninger Foundation programs moved from Topeka to Houston, Texas where it is now affiliated with the Baylor College of Medicine and the Methodist Hospital. The move resulted from several factors: treatment models moving away from longer- term residential treatment to shorter, out-patient approaches; the movement away from intrapsychic to pharmacological and behavioral treatment approaches; and, most notably, health insurance companies’ increasingly restrictive reimbursement practices for mental health treatment. Menninger’s could no longer afford to provide costly residential, milieu therapy interventions.

When I was invited to describe my most memorable student, I found it difficult to select a single case because there were so many who were not only memorable, but who also helped me find solutions to complex problems which confronted me while working in our profession.

I selected Robby. According the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, Robby’s diagnosis was “schizophrenic reaction, hebephrenic type.” In today’s DSM IV, it would be called “disorganized type.” Both labels addressed shallow, inappropriate affect, unpredictable giggling, silly behavior and mannerisms, and delusions. At first impression, Robby was a mechanical boy, but only somewhat comparable to “Joey, a mechanical boy” that Bruno Bettelheim wrote about in the Scientific American in March, 1959. 2

I was selected to introduce Robby to the residential setting at the Menninger Foundation. I waited on the front porch of the huge Victorian mansion which served as the residence on the campus known as Southard School. My first impression was of a big, goofy-looking teenage boy with a bed sheet over his head and shoulders. The sheet was tucked into a wide western belt so tightly cinched that flesh overlapped the top and bottom. And he had on a set of oversized aviator sunglasses. He refused my suggestion to see his room. Instead we headed to a big, dark, and dusty basement to locate the electrical and mechanical equipment. You see, Robby believedhe derived his power from those objects. And he feared that if he lost control of that power, he would explode. Hence, he used the cinch belt to hold the power in for his use as needed.

After a few weeks at Southard, Robby shed the sheet and sunglasses because the recreational therapists, child care workers in today’s parlance, had helped him learn that he was in a safe place– one that did not punish the outward expression of the inward pain he was obviously feeling. His belt remained tightly cinched, but we knew that when the belt moved to a new, less restrictive hold he was making progress. That was a clear measure of his increased internal control.

Robby was good natured and giggled often unless frustrated or thwarted by others. His voice was wooden, lacking in affect. He mostly started conversations by saying something like, “Oh yeah, Dick Whelan!” followed by a question or a statement like “What happens when the fuse blows?” I usually replied something like, “You and I will go to the basement and replace the fuse.” This caused gales of giggles – Robby’s, not mine. Robby usually had a big smile on his face, but while looking in a mirror, he would often smile and cry at the same time – a distressing sight forsure.

Robby was intellectually capable in math and science, and I taught him advanced algebra. His computational skills were errorless, but like many students he found word problems difficult. While solving a problem, he shook his body up and down, making noises that mimicked the sound of a Monroe or Friden mechanical statistical calculator. (Those of you old enough to have used those will know what I am talking about.) Robby’s vocabulary was advanced, but his social skills were terrible. He blurted out words that did not fit the context and then collapsed in fits of giggles because he thought his comments were funny. For example,when discussing a story about President Taft, he said, “Oh yeah, he has a fat butt!”

One clear memory of Robby goes back to a hot day in summer school, and he was sweating profusely while solving a mathematical problem. He said, “Oh yeah, Dick Whelan, I am going to make an air conditioner tonight and bring it to school.” I said, “Robby that is great!” although my private thought was that he was having an episode of grandiosity, a characteristic of his diagnosis. Sure enough, the next day, Robby proved me wrong by showing up with a type of air conditioner – a small fan with a bowl of ice. It worked for a few minutes, and Robby just beamed because of his invention. However, reality soon set in and we had a great lesson about adding more humidity to the already humid air. Such was the curriculum and teaching approach in a psychoanalytic center!

Robby taught me that no matter the diagnosis or prognosis, each child deserves our best. Robby made great progress, even though the last time I checked many years ago, he was not on the list of NASA astronauts.

My retirement job qualifies me for a cubicle, which is great because it allows me to slide my chair to whatever I need. On my wall I placed a sign with big print saying, “Don’t believe everything you think!” This comes from my time with Robby. I initially believed he would be able to function with general educationpeers. My colleagues warned me not to have such delusional thoughts, but I decided to explore that idea. After several visitsmto a local high school and conversations with the high school staff (there was no special education in those days), Robby’s treatment team finally gave me the green light, so I enrolled Robby in a general class schedule including physics. He had no aide, no IEP, or any supplementary aids and services.

He was expected to meet class requirements, homework included. Of course, I checked with Robby’s teachers every few days. He did well, mostly because he held in some of his impulses.

We worked on social behaviors and I tried to teach him that not every thought needs to beexpressed. So, he held in those impulses until he returned to the residence where he felt comfortable enough to show symptomatic behaviors associated with his diagnosis. As he recorded multiple successes as a somewhat atypical high school student, the frequency of those behaviors decreased. During school hours Robby presented himself as the good natured, goofy boy that hewas. His peers liked him, probably because he was different in ways that did not scare them. And in hindsight, I believe that his peers watched over him.

One report from Robby’s physics teacher that has stuck in my long-term memory concerned a class discussion of absolute zero. The teacher asked Robby to describe absolute zero. Robby, being Robby, said this “Oh Yeah, that is when it’s cold enough to freeze your buns off” (giggle, giggle). So, that’s it. That is my story about Robby.

.  .  .

Whelan was one of the first persons interviewed by MSLBD’s Janus Oral History Project. His interview was wide-ranging, and he addressed many issues we continue to face today. What follows are a few excerpts from that interview.

Janus: How do you visualize the current state of the field in meeting the needs of students whohave emotional or behavioral disorders?

Whelan: I don’t think we have enough options in the schools. It’s difficult, given the schedules of our counselors and school psychologists to plan individual and group counseling which could address the needs of our children. Our teachers, in many instances, have caseloads that preclude planning group sessions to identify and deal with conflict in positive ways such as Nicholas Long’s work at the Rose School. When coping with adolescents who have severe problems, extra group session help is even more important. Adolescents, even those with severe mental disabilities, are not usually dangerous to others because they tend to leave a stressful conflict situation, unless we corner or otherwise challenge them. Those are not very good tactics because the end result could produce injuries.

But the teachers, from my point of view, feel frustrated that they are not able to provide more therapeutic learning experiences. The mental health centers are overwhelmed with family and individual problems. Juvenile justice centers, while helpful, are confronted with similar problems.

Historically, the children in our society have not been at the top of the agenda to address mental disorders, for whatever reason. Of course, when that happens, that’s disappointing. Prevention, as we know, doesrequire costly resources but over time that investment is recovered several times over. It’s hard to convince people to put that initial expenditure out there. I’m disappointed that we haven’t gone further into early identification and prevention as Eli Bower wanted us to do from the 1950s. It just didn’t happen, much to the disappointment of many in our field.

The other agenda item we’re still struggling with is the meaning of the least restrictive environment (LRE). When I am asked the LRE question, I may reply: “The fact that we might find a child in a general education classroom all day long with a para-educator teaching the child one-to-one is not the LRE in spirit or fact.”

But I am optimistic about the future, and I hope more and more people enter the field. In the 1960’s, when P.L. 88-164 passed, our field grew from infancy through adolescence to the maturity – with warts and other ailments of aging professions – it has today. We had many students enter the field because they were very interested in teaching and a career of service to others.Some came to EBD because they had family members struggling with a mental disorder and they wanted to understand and help them and others.

In terms of teacher education for educators of children with EBD, I know that Kansas has been criticized because it requires a general teacher education license prior to an endorsement to teach children with EBD. In my view, that general background is foundational for the knowledge and skills to be successful in our field. I also believe that a broad liberal arts education is extremely important for success in our field because it gives us an interdisciplinary perspective so important for life-long learning and doing. When new teachers get several years of experience in a general education setting, they’re going to encounter youngsters with emotional or behavioral disorders, and because of their general education background may adapt their instruction and management plan to meet their needs. On the other hand, the children’s many complex needs may motivate them to enter our field, and that is good news.

My longtime friend and colleague, Pat Gallagher, referred to this phenomenon as “general to specific to general.” This phrase contains few words, but conveys a wise message. It tells us  that it is important to be an effective teacher of general education students before we learn the specific knowledge and skills to understand and teach students with EBD. Only then will we come to know that EBD understandings and effective teaching strategies are equally applicable in the general education setting. Think of the prevention and early intervention strategies that can be used as alternatives to EBD classification and special education placement. If only such a practice were more wide spread!

Janus: What is your advice for practitioners entering the field?

Whelan: There are obviously very resilient teachers just as there are very resilient children. What’s amazing to me is that some children come through aversive experiences and still remain very productive, forgiving, and so on and so forth. As I recall, the one common thing that the resilient youngsters have is a mentor – a significant adult who helps them cope with life’s barriers and hurts; I believe that’s true with teachers too. If teachers go into our field with the right motivation and knowing that it won’t be grand and glorious every day, they will realize there will be times when they are so angry at the children that they can hardly stand it. But, they will also realize that families, parents, and children, are extremely gratefulfor their efforts and show that in many ways. I certainly found it to be worth the effort.

Dick Whelan recognized the necessity of both “knowing and doing.” And, he often observed that children are our best teachers. He said, “They will let you know if you are teaching correctly, and if you truly understand the message in their words and other behaviors.”

Jim Teagarden, Associate Professor, Kansas State University, mrt@ksu.edu

Robert H. Zabel, Professor Emeritus, Kansas State University, robertzabel@gmail.com

Reece Peterson, Professor Emeritus, University of Nebraska, rpeterson1@unl.edu


1 This is based upon a video recording which Whelan completed as a part of MSLBD’s educator stories of most memorable students (https://archive.org/details/RichardWhelan343), and an edited tran- script of a videotaped conversation with Dr. Richard Whelan conduct- ed by MSLBD’s Janus project (https://archive.org/details/RichardWhel- ansThoughts) which later appeared in Intervention in School and Clinic (Kaff, M. S., Teagarden, J., & Zabel, R., 2011, 46(3), 184-189). Portions of this interview are reprinted with permission.

2 “Joey, a Mechanical Boy” was one of several case studies shared by Bruno Bettelheim in the 1950s regarding his work at the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago. According to Bettelheim, Joey did not communicate directly with others and believed he was a mechanical robot. He drew images of houses, vehicles, and machines and could fall asleep only after connecting himself toimaginary andreal “machines” which he believed sustained him. At that time before autism was recognized as a syndrome, Bettelheim, who was trained in Freudian psychotherapy, considered Joey schizophrenic. Today Joey might be diagnosed as autistic. Many years later, Bettelheim became very controversial for his views regarding the possible causes of autism and other issues. The “Joey the Mechanical Boy” case can be found in Bettelheim, B. (1959). Joey: A “mechanical boy,” Scientific Ameri- can, 200, 116-127. (Republished in Bettelheim, B. (1967). The empty fortress. New York: The Free Press.)

Used with permission of the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorder mslbd.org and the editors of ReThinking Behavior https://www.pageturnpro.com/Midwest-Symposium-for-Leadership-in-Behavior-Disorders/93369-ReThinking-Behavior-Winter-2020/flex.html#page/1

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