On Shoulders of Giants It’s vital to acknowledge our mentors and their profound influence, and recognize their importance in our professional lives. From My Perspective
From My Perspective  |   August 01, 2014
On Shoulders of Giants
Author Notes
  • Barry M. Prizant, PhD, CCC-SLP, is director of Childhood Communication Services, a private practice in Cranston, R.I., and an adjunct professor at Brown University. bprizant@gmail.com
    Barry M. Prizant, PhD, CCC-SLP, is director of Childhood Communication Services, a private practice in Cranston, R.I., and an adjunct professor at Brown University. bprizant@gmail.com×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / Professional Issues & Training / Language Disorders / From My Perspective
From My Perspective   |   August 01, 2014
On Shoulders of Giants
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 10-12. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP.19082014.10
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 10-12. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP.19082014.10
Sometimes, a day 40 years ago can seem like yesterday. It was the last year of my master’s degree program in communicative disorders and sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My advisor, John Muma, pulled me aside to ask about my post-graduation plans.
“I’d like to get a clinical fellowship position working with autistic children,” I replied without hesitation.
“I know that autism is your area of passion,” he said, “But I’d also like you to consider staying on for your doctorate. I think you can do both.” He told me he could see I was engaged intellectually in my studies—and after all, I had nothing to lose by entering the program.
That simple conversation launched me on the career path that that has become my life’s work, a path that I might not have taken otherwise. It led me through the gratifying 35 years of research and clinical/educational practice including, with valued colleagues, the development of the SCERTS® Model (Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support) for children with autism and related disabilities. Most important, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on childhood language disabilities and their impact on the family—and in the process, help others.
But none of my achievements—as a researcher, speaker, educator or writer—would have been possible if not for four mentors. Each of them entered my life at a critical point. Mentors might appear where and when we least expect them, but their advice and guidance are critical in formulating who we are as professionals. Mine equipped me with knowledge, skills, principles and values that have led to a most rewarding and satisfying career.
John Muma
An undergraduate degree in psycholinguistics prepared me for the intense and critical analysis demanded by my first mentor, John Muma, child language professor in my master’s program. John was a pivotal figure in the psycholinguistic movement of the 1970s, exploring the relationships among language development and cognitive, social and emotional development.
John—and a few other professionals in our field—critically examined the exploding research and literature, seeking implications for working with children with language disabilities. His excitement and deep interest in these issues were contagious. In retrospect, we were riding the wave of a major paradigm shift: This emerging knowledge would soon support the social-pragmatic revolution that changed speech-language pathology practice forever.
John once invited me to join him in addressing a meeting of one of the first chapters of the National Society for Autistic Children. We entered the meeting room and greeted the group’s president, who was also father to a child with autism.
“Welcome Dr. Muma and welcome Barry,” he said, and added without missing a beat, “If you mention the name ‘Bruno Bettelheim,’ we will kick you out on your asses.” Bettleheim was infamous for popularizing the theory that autism was a child’s reaction to being raised by emotionally cold parents. I’ve never forgotten that pointed lesson in how to work productively with families of children with autism.
Judith Duchan
As I began my PhD program, John accepted a position at another university. This move led me across town to seek out Judy Duchan, a professor at Buffalo State College and another recognized leader in social-pragmatic approaches in child language. I didn’t know it at the time, but Judy would prove the perfect match for my academic and research interests, and my temperament. From our first meeting, she was kind and supportive, and clearly respected by all her students and colleagues. She had a wonderful sense of humor, paired with a unique combination of humility, intellect and scholarly rigor.
Judy—a pioneer in developing qualitative assessments of child language—was conducting novel research in the use of videoanalysis. She radiated intellectual curiosity about individual differences in children and by doing so, refused to view them as disabled. She was interested in the functions of behavior from a developmental perspective, years before the behavioral term “functional behavioral analysis” was coined. She also delved into ethnographic literature on stories, and believed stories are a rich source of data to understand people as social and cultural beings.
Under Judy’s guidance and tutelage, I came to understand and respect qualitative research, which provided me with critical skills for my doctoral dissertation: studying—through videoanalysis—the developmental functions of immediate echolalia. This research helped people understand echolalia not as a pathological behavior to be extinguished, but rather as a functional, developmental phenomenon.
David Yoder
In 1978, PhD in hand, I hit the road with two goals: fulfill my “hippie dream” of exploring the United States with abandon, and explore universities recruiting child language faculty for the next academic year. But first I wanted to fulfill another fantasy: meeting a giant of the profession whose work I so loved, a leader in language disabilities and one of the founders of the subspecialty of augmentative and alternative communication—David Yoder, then chair of communication disorders at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nervous, I called him to request a meeting. David was warm and welcoming, and even more so when we met a month later. I had sent him my PhD research ahead of time, and he’d read it.
David had all the qualities that define leadership: eloquence, creativity, intellect, wit and humanity. He taught me that we could respect and love our clients with even the most severe disabilities, and that helping them to communicate more effectively is the greatest gift we can give. He also was a champion for multidisciplinary collaboration.
In the 1980s, as ASHA president, David invited me to visit Taiwan with ASHA colleagues and present at two Sino-American symposia on communication disorders. David was a model of integrity and grace in a culture so different from ours. Our friendship and David’s importance as a mentor grew over the course of multiple return visits to Madison, and then at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where David served as chair of medical allied health professions. David’s interpersonal gifts helped prepare me for many subsequent opportunities to address professionals and parents in different cultures. In 2009, I had the great privilege to present the keynote workshop at the first David and Dee Yoder Symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill.
David Luterman
In 1991, I joined the faculty at Emerson College in Boston. I looked forward to getting to know David Luterman, an audiologist renowned for establishing in 1961 the first family-centered nursery for children with hearing loss. David also was a seminal figure in establishing counseling as a valid and important role for SLPs and audiologists.
I immediately was taken by David’s honesty, directness and fatherly attitude toward me—and for introducing me to the best and cheapest lunch spots in Boston! However, I never anticipated the profound impact he would have on my career. Thanks to David, I developed a much deeper understanding of “family-centered” practice, and professionals’ obligation to understand the family experience.
With this influence, I collaborated with a parent group and my wife, Elaine Meyer of the Harvard Medical School, to establish a weekend retreat for parents of children with autism, now in its 20th year—one of my proudest achievements. A few years later, David asked me to write the forward for his seminal work, “Counseling the Communicatively Disordered and Their Families,” now in its fifth edition, another profound honor.
Most recently, after a dinner together, David put his hands on my shoulders, peered into my eyes, and said, “It’s great that you’ve been successful in academic publishing … but when are you going to write your f***ing book?”
With that imperative, I was determined to share what I’ve learned from thousands of other mentors on my professional and personal journey—the children and families I’ve had the privilege to serve. The result is my forthcoming book, “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism,” to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. When I speak of David’s work and the lessons I have learned from him, I can only think of David as a sage. He rightly deserves the professional epitaph he desires: “He expanded the field to include feelings and families.”
Thanks to our mentors
Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate our mentors, then we realize years later how profoundly they influenced who we have become. My mentors have been instructors, research advisors, even distant guides under whom I have never directly studied. They have been colleagues and SLPs as well as audiologists. I have benefited immensely from their academic and research mentoring, and the models of dedication, leadership, support and kindness they provided. We all should try to recognize who our mentors are now, and thank them.
August 1, 2014
Nancy Brady
wonderful observations
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Barry. You have been truly fortunate to work with these mentors. I only personally know David Yoder. You did a great job capturing his character and joy for the profession.
August 1, 2014
Richard Carpenter
Thank You Dr. Prizant
Thank you Dr. Prizant for this beautiful expression of appreciation. Like the previous commenter, I too knew one of your mentors - Dr. David Luterman - and daily feel the imprint he has left on my work. In our rush to learn the next skill or meet the paperwork deadline, how wonderful to take a moment to appreciate those who've helped us get where we are. I vote for having columns like this become a regular feature in the ASHA Leader!
August 5, 2014
Elizabeth Crais
High praise from a wonderful mentor to his mentors
Barry, I read with interest and enthusiasm your reflections on your mentors. These four have been truly inspiring throughout their lives, and ASHA and our field are fortunate to have had these giants among us. As the old saying goes, "It takes one to know one". I suspect many of your students and colleagues like myself have appreciated your own mentoring and giving back to the profession. I would include you in the giant group. Thanks for honoring them and moving the field yourself in the area of children and families living with autism.
October 9, 2014
Kit Hoffmann
The Balloon Man Gives Back
Barry, I agree with Elizabeth, that is takes one to know one. I recall you presenting and demonstrating letting a balloon go to show us how to entice a child to talk about it. I remember doing this trick with a young boy who was electively mute after a terrifying ambulance ride, he loved it and with sign language and more of your fine ideas, he began talking again. I was honored to work with you and thank you for all your have contributed to countless struggling communicators, their families and professionals working with them.
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August 2014
Volume 19, Issue 8