Bender began to be interested in the development of language disorders and learning problems, and their causes, when she was in third grade, around the age of eight. Because her handwriting was so poor and her reading was so slow, she was considered by school authorities to be slightly retarded, and they attempted to force her to go back to second grade. Her father, however, prevented this move, as he was aware that Lauretta’s reading and writing skills needed support, not punishment.
Education and career
Electroshock therapy on children
"Bender, who shocked 100 children, the youngest of whom was 3, abandoned the use of ECT in the 1950s. She is best known as the co-developer of a widely used neuropsychological test that bears her name, not as a pioneer in the use of ECT on children. That work was discredited by researchers who found that the children she treated either showed no improvement or got worse." 
During the 60s the children's unit of Creedmoor Hospital was a veritable snake pit under Lauretta Bender's supervision. Sensitive children were "interviewed" by Bender in front of the entire staff. Her analysis of their behavior was made in front of the large assembled group and the child himself as though the child could not hear. She performed a "diagnostic test" on children which involved holding the head of a standing child and gently turning it. Supposedly schizophrenic children would turn in the direction of the pressure and normal children would resist. Not surprisingly, this was later demonstrated to be nonsense. One child who was given shock treatment returned from a home visit and was subjected to one of Bender's demonstrative interviews. When she asked how the visit went he acted upset and said that children in the neighborhood called him: "That crazy boy." In response, Bender told the assembled group that such "paranoia" was unusual in a young child. She showed very little understanding or compassion towards the children who were treated like subjects. The diagnosis of "Childhood Schizophrenia" was widely used and thorazine was administered to a huge percentage of the children. The general conditions were appalling even by standards of the day. A normal child would have a very hard time surviving an internment in Creedmoor in tact. Her fame afforded Dr. Bender commanded undue respect. It was a situation of The Emperors New Clothes, but where those who suffered were children, the vast majority of whom were at most behavior problems from difficult family situations and not mentally ill at all.
Work in reading disability
Bender became aware of the need for a specialized teaching philosophy applicable to children with language disabilities. She recognized that children with learning disorders were best understood as suffering from a biologically determined disorder. She believed that there was “a functional defect of the maturation of those areas...needed for the development of language, considered in its broadest sense” (24). She felt that, although there were many possible reasons for the maturational delays, such as those resulting from poor social experiments at critical times of language development, there was a genetic factor underlying some reading disabilities.
Bender viewed reading disabilities as evolving from a basic biological unevenness in maturation. She believed the reading disability itself to be but a manifestation of a more fundamental condition. Bender claimed that “children with various biological problems have a number of common problems", including: difficulties in patterned behavior in impulse, motor, perceptual and integrative areas; severe anxiety, also poorly patterned, with associated body image and identification problems; and a great need for human support in relation to these areas.
With the help of Paul Schilder, Bender developed the thesis that many of the language problems facing children with reading disabilities may have as their basis difficulty with the temporal ordering of sequences in a series of hierarchies of organization. Such ordering and hierarchical sequences include the organization of phonemes in words, words in a sentence, and sentences within paragraphs.
Work in language disability
Although Bender focused mainly on reading disability, she also spent a great deal of time working in the broad field of language disability. She viewed developmental language disabilities as occurring along a spectrum from least to most severe, with reading disability occupying the least severe end of the spectrum and the language problems of autism and schizophrenia occupying the other. Although her views in this matter have been criticized, they essentially posit that autism and schizophrenia are biologically determined lags in maturity, just as reading disability is a biologically developed deviation. Bender does not imply that the causes of the afflictions are the same, but instead that their connection lies in the common symptoms of specific language dysfunctions.
Bender attempted to understand the vulnerability of the language function to all the developmental disorders. She recognized the biological nature of a group of learning disorders for which there was no clinical evidence of structural damage to the central nervous system. She also understood that the learning problem was only one symptom of the biological defect which affects other areas of behavior, such as impulse control, motor coordination, perception and integration, and that underlying the spectrum of deficits is basic dysfunction in special orientation and temporal organization. Bender also incorporated social factors contributing to language delay.
Bender's research has been used to devise programs to prevent learning disorders. Her efforts contributed a wealth of knowledge in the field of learning disorders that is still called upon and serves as a foundation for many different pedagogies.
Bender is best known for her Visual Motor Gestalt Test described in her 1938 monograph, A Visual Motor Gestalt Test and Its Clinical Use. The test consists of reproducing nine figures that are printed on cards. The figures were derived from the work of the famous Gestalt psychologist, Max Wertheimer. The Bender-Gestalt test, as it is now often called, was typically among the top five test used by clinical psychologists. It was considered to be a measure of perceptual motor skills and perceptual motor development and gives an indication of neurological intactness. Underlying the use of this test was Lauretta Bender's false argument that a single measure that assesses gestalt could potentially identify brain damage. In the past two decades studies have repeatedly shown that the B-G is not sensitive to the identification of brain damage or emotional problems. It is therefore rarely taught or used by clinical psychologists.
Scoring systems include:
- Elizabeth M. Koppitz's system for children (1963)
- Pascal and Suttell system for adults (1951)
- Hutt and Briskin projective personality feature system (1960)
- Arthur Canter's Background Interference Procedure (BIP) test for organicity (1976)
Patrica Lacks uses the BGT test as a screening device for brain damage. Bender herself said it was "a method of evaluating maturation of gestalt functioning children 4-11's brain functioning by which it responds to a given constellation of stimuli as a whole, the response being a motor process of patterning the perceived gestalt."
Gestalt therapy is a separate and distinct science from the Visual Motor Gestalt Test.
- Washington Post, September 24, 1996, 'Shock Therapy...It's Back', by Sandra G.Boodman
- The Making of DSM-IIIRG: A Diagnostic Manual's Conquest of American Psychiatry By Hannah Decker
- First hand observation as an employee in 1965.
- Silver, Archie A. "Lauretta Bender's Contribution to Understanding Language Disorders". Annals of Dyslexia 39 (1989).
- Lacks, Patricia (1999). Bender Gestalt Screening for Brain Dysfunction, (2d ed.), p. 157. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-24257-8.
- Lacks (1999), p. 36.