Dr. Mary Goodwin, a pediatrician known for her work with autistic children, has moved from her farm in Cooperstown, N.Y., to a borrowed house on a sunny corner of Georgetown. From there, she makes daily excursions to Georgetwon University Hospital where other doctors throw the latest medical weaponry at her advanced cancer.
"I'm like Golda Meir," Goodwin, 72, tells a visitor gamely. "Too old to die young."
She is determinedly congenial. But playing about her eyes and in the gestures of her hands is a look familiar to those who have watched someone struggle in the peculiar currents of that disease, scanning the past intently and playing a kind of connect-the-dots with the events of a life, fiddling with patterns of meaning.
She speaks of the book not written, the work left undone. She and her late husband, T. Campbell Goodwin, also a pediatrician, have been credited by colleagues and parents with pioneering work in the treatment and teaching of emotionally disturbed children. But she wonders what will come of it.
"It's so frustrating to feel you can't get your message across," she says.
Goodwin's special concern is for autistic children. She is critical of her own profession's approach to them. "The lable, 'autism,' deprives these children of care available to others," she says. "Their physical handicaps are too often undetected and untreated because of the doctors' preoccupation with meaningless labels and psychological symptoms."
Autism is a rare and mysterious condition. Children who suffer from it have severe problems in communicating with or relating at all to other people.
A preoccupation with toys and other inanimate objects, a lack of desire to be held or cuddled, constant crying, or no crying at all, repetitious movements such as hand shaking, rocking and spinning, and head banging, and various speech and eating problems are among the signs of autism in children, according to Goodwin and other experts in the field.
Despite research from a variety of angles, professionals concede that they remain pretty much in the dark about the condition - what causes it and how to treat it.
Mary Goodwin believes in what is now called "mainstreaming" such children - giving them as much exposure as possible to life and learning. Institutional programs that emphasize the use of psychiatry and drugs "are 4 to 10 times costlier, but not as effective as the 'life and learning' programs," she insists.
"It has been lost sight of that children have to be seen whole," she says - their minds and bodies, their social life and their surroundings. "There are things that can be done to return them from that outcast life."
She remebers a five-year-old boy named Eddie who arrived at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital, in Cooperstown, in the mid-1950s. "Eddie was a head-banging, screaming mute, totally unmanageable," she said. Several psychiatrists had decided that he was autistic and had recommended that he should be put into a state institution.
A strange contraption awaited Eddie at the special program operated by the Goodwins. Known as the "talking typewriter," it was a keyboard attached to a computer that could "talk back" to a child when he pressed the keys. It has been used elsewhere in reading experiments with normal children. The Goodmans has decided to try it with handicapped children.
"Eddie hit a key and heard a voice (the computer's loudspeaker) answer. Then he sat down and started typing madly," Goodwin remembers. "He had typed a strange litany of word such as Clorox, Ivory, Mr. Clean, Arrid deodorant. Words from television commercials!"
People had presumed, as they almost always did with autistic children, that he had not been able to learn anything at all, Goodwin said. "With the typewriter, he demonstrated that a lot of learning had been taking place . . . It was a turning point in all our lives."
As his visits continued, Eddie's tantrums and wild behavior gradually diminshed and his reading and writing improved, Goodwin remembered.
In the 28 months they used the "talking typewriter," the Goodwins took in 150 children, half of them with learning disabilities and 65 of them considered autistic. The Goodwins saw many of them advance in their reading skills.
The Goodwins cautioned all along that they were not dealing in cures, which for autistic children do not yet exist. However, Eddie, now 19 years old, is living at home and is able to perform some jobs in a sheltered workshop, she says.
"We learned about abilities these children have that aren't measured in conventional testing. We learned that they could learn, and some had learned.
The Goodwins received a flurry of publicity in medical journals and New York newspapers for their work with the "talking typewriter." But after they left the Cooperstown hospital, the project was phased out and the equipment allowed to deteriorate, she said. "It seemed to us that, as in so many other programs we had seen, once again the priority was not the children."
Having come from a family with several doctors in it, as a graduate of Barnard College in 1928, Mary Goodwin had felt it natural to put on a new blue bonnet and go for an interview at Johns Hopkins University. In medical school there, she met her husband, who was her first teacher in pediatrics.
Her career included service as a physician at Vassar College and later with the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. She also reared a son and a daughter.
She was among the experts called to testify in connection with the revelations of abuses at the Willowbrook Institution in New York.
She was not paid for a lot of her work, her son Tom, a film and television producer here, points out. She often was considered an auxiliary to her husband, and he adds, "She's just too polite about that kind of thing."
Her husband died in 1973. Mary Goodwin notes that in 1957, doctors had told him he had cancer and given him only four or five months to live.
In the years since his death, Mary Goodwin has become a "matriarchal figure" to a network of families around Cooperstown, her son says. "She's alway been there to answer their questions when they call."