Louise Whitbeck Fraser: A Pioneer in Special Education

April 4, 2014

As Autism Awareness Month gets under way, it is an apt time to honor Louise Whitbeck Fraser, a pioneer in special education whose heart for children led to new initiatives and opportunities for individuals with special needs.

In the winter of 1985, Tom Balcom recounted the story of Louise Fraser in a Hennepin County Historical Society publication. When independent film producer Tim Moodie learned of the story recently he approached Fraser, the organization named for her in 2001, about developing it into a film. Once funding is secured, Twin Cities Public Television will collaborate with Moodie to develop a feature film highlighting Louise Fraser’s work with individuals with disabilities and its lasting impact on a local and national level.

It’s not surprising Moodie was so taken with the story.

In her lifetime, Louise Fraser suffered great loss but bestowed great gifts. Orphaned by age 3, the free-spirited and strong-willed girl was raised by a prim and proper aunt whose strict discipline often frustrated her.

Early on Louise Fraser had an affinity for children who struggled. As a young teacher she was often assigned the problem children. Her school principal once counseled her to give a difficult student a good spanking so he would behave. Her instincts told her the boy just needed a little love.

Beginning in 1920, Louise Fraser experienced a series of tragedies. Her 3-year-old son fell from a moving car and died. Her husband, a federal agent, was shot to death while investigating a moonshine operation. Her eldest daughter died from a staph infection while attending law school.

But her younger daughter Jean’s challenges set the course for Louise Fraser’s exceptional life. When Jean was 6 weeks old she contracted spinal meningitis. Though she recovered, she behaved wildly and was considered retarded until age 11, when doctors discovered she was stone deaf. Her behavior was due to frustration over not being able to hear. She could hear very high sounds and very low sounds — but not the sounds typical of conversation.

Louise Fraser’s response was life-changing for more than her daughter.

While they awaited an opening in a school for the deaf she discovered if she played music she could expand Jean’s attention span and teach her skills she was missing. As word of the approach spread, reactions were mixed. While some parents persuaded Louise Fraser to teach their “retarded” children, some professionals objected to her methodology.

Teaching children with special needs at home was dramatically different from the norm in the 1930s. The “feeble minded” were typically institutionalized. Rather than being educated they were medicated, segregated and sterilized.

Louise Fraser was undaunted. By 1941 she was schooling 25 students in her home. Some neighbors, fearing an adverse impact on property values, were unwelcoming of children with differences and raised objections with local officials.

When authorities prohibited Louise Fraser from teaching school in her home, she was forced to relocate to a commercial building that soon proved inadequate. The widowed mother who earned a pittance engaged in fundraising with other parents and mortgaged her home so she could move the school to a more suitable location.

In the 1950s Louise Fraser was able to hire the school’s first full-time music teacher. Critics eventually became allies. A university physician who had initially called her a fraud praised her excellent work and acknowledged the need for educational services for exceptional children.

By the early 1960s the school was serving 60 children ages 3 to 20 and gaining national recognition. In 1994, the organization that came to be known as Fraser took over a day treatment program started by psychologists Lyle Chastain and Sheila Merzer at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital. Today, Fraser serves 9,300 clients with myriad mental health and developmental disorders, 70 percent with autism.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 individuals, predominantly white males, is now diagnosed with autism. Over the years Fraser has expanded its service to include diagnosis, multi-disciplinary treatment and support services for children, adolescents, adults and their families. As the population has aged, Fraser has added transition services for youth and expanded the residential program that serves my own son. Unlike years past, neighbors have commended Fraser residents for being “great neighbors.”

Funding continues to be a challenge for an organization with no wealthy benefactor, explains CEO Diane Cross. Hiring sufficient trained staff to perform timely evaluations and implement service plans is especially challenging, she says. But like her predecessor, Cross is undaunted.

The work of the woman who lived in abject poverty to ensure it remained viable endures, as do words that offer insight into her soul. Not long before her death in 1981 Louise Fraser wrote the following in a book entitled, “A Cup of Kindness: A Book for Parents of Retarded Children.”

“Did you ever feel the confidence of a little child’s hand in yours? It is silent communication that expresses security and trust. It is a silent asking of guidance through the entanglement of confusion in untraveled ways. You give these things to the child when you give your hand to him. You are the privileged one. Yours is true service for it must come from the heart it if is to fulfill that earnest appeal felt in the little outstretched hand of a child in need of security.”