OBITUARY : Barbara Furneaux

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Barbara Furneaux was an outstanding teacher who exercised a great influence in the education of autistic children.

Furneaux trained as a teacher in London, and started her career in an ordinary junior school. She developed a special interest in the plight of those children whose education was hampered by serious emotional disturbance rather than lack of intellect. During the Second World War, she gained a London University Postgraduate Diploma in Educational Psychology by part-time study at Birkbeck College and was appointed, in 1958, Head of Hollymount House, a Surrey County Council unit specialising in the education of such children.

Among those admitted to her unit were two autistic children referred as an experiment by Dr Mildred Creak, one of the pioneers of research in the field of childhood autism. The aetiology of autism was a large field for research at the time, as indeed it still is today, but there was general agreement that autistic children were virtually ineducable, unwilling and unable to communicate with others. They functioned in many respects as if they were of subnormal intelligence.

Furneaux accepted Creak's challenge with enthusiasm and engaged the interest of researchers of eminence such as Jack Tizard and Michael Rutter. The view of autism which she helped to develop saw the heart of the condition as a gross deficiency in the ability to interpret the signals people emit during social interaction. The autistic child thus finds the social environment incomprehensible and threatening and retreats into a private world. The child needs to be taught which intra- personal signs have significance and how to interpret them - capacities which normally develop spontaneously. And before such teaching can have any hope of success, motivation to achieve social integration has itself to be developed.

Furneaux found that the stratagems needed to achieve these objectives varied substantially from one child to another, and that the difficulties could be prodigious, but she was a woman of enormous energy, determination and patience. She showed that it was possible to educate autistic children, and some of them to a standard that no one had thought possible.

Before long, news of Furneaux's achievements spread, attracting attention from educationists in Britain and overseas. She found herself lecturing, demonstrating her methods, appearing on television and writing. For her first book, she coined the title The Special Child (1969), introducing not only a new way of referring to children with handicaps but also a profoundly new attitude towards them. This was followed by Autistic Children (1977, written jointly with Brian Roberts). These are now standard works in teacher training colleges.

In 1977 her achievements with autistic and seriously disturbed children were crowned when Surrey County Council, with direct funding from the DHSS, built Linden Bridge, a school for those whom Furneaux, as headmistress, called "special children". Encouraged by her enthusiasm and drive, parents and friends raised money for a swimming pool; the children learnt instrumental music and went horse-riding. By the time she retired in 1981, the impact of her work had brought the children into the community and achieved recognition for them. As she wrote: "To teach is both a challenge and a privilege. This is perhaps especially true in the field of special education where so much is still unknown, and where there is such a lot to be gained in every way."

In working with her special children, Barbara Furneaux found that their parents and families needed as much help as did the children. She discovered that in many cases the medical profession had been guilty of gross insensitivity when communicating the diagnosis of autism, and in addition the prevailing ethos engendered the view that such children were destined for the scrapheap. Furneaux's last book, Special Parent (1988), set out the advice and information that this greatly loved pioneer had dispensed family by family to parents struggling to come to terms with their problems.

In her retirement, Barbara Furneaux continued her work as an Associate Research Fellow at Brunel University.

Doreen Logoreci

and Desmond Furneaux

Barbara Annie Charlotte Clements, educationist: born Plymouth 8 April 1916; married 1945 Desmond Furneaux; died West Byfleet 23 March 1995.