Mary MacCracken, whose memoirs about her intensely individualized approach to teaching children with emotional and cognitive disabilities were made into television movies, died on July 23 in Hanover, N.H. She was 88.
The cause was complications of melanoma, her daughter Susan L. Thistle said.
Mrs. MacCracken entered the special education field in the late 1960s as a once-a-week volunteer at a private school in New Jersey. There, she wrote, she became enthralled with children whose extreme behaviors included hiding in closets and obscenity-laced tirades that tended to scare off many volunteers on sight.
Her interest led her to pursue an advanced degree in education. But it was as a volunteer that Mrs. MacCracken developed the visceral bond with children that informed her books and drew the attention of television producers.
Jane Alexander starred as Mrs. MacCracken in the 1977 television movie “A Circle of Children,” based on Mrs. MacCracken’s 1974 book of the same name. A 1978 sequel, “Lovey,” was based on her second book, “Lovey: A Very Special Child” (1976), about her efforts to get through to children then considered unreachable by the medical establishment.
The books described her relationships with children who were considered to be psychotic, autistic and schizophrenic, but whom she scrupulously avoided perceiving or labeling as such.
Regardless of the common thread of the disorders, each child was “a unique being,” she wrote. Her job as a teacher was to make school “the one safe place, somewhere in their lives” where they could be themselves.
The movies — described in some reviews as updated versions of “The Miracle Worker,” the William Gibson play and movie about Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan — brought new levels of attention to Mrs. MacCracken’s books, as well as many speaking invitations.
In the 1980s and ’90s, she often shared the dais at mental-health conferences with the former first lady Rosalynn Carter and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, longtime advocates for improving access to mental health care. She was named honorary chairwoman of various national and local mental health organizations.
“Emotionally disturbed children are no different from the rest of us,” she said in a 1978 interview with the New Jersey newspaper The Record. “We all know anger. We all know loneliness and pain. We all retreat from reality. The difference is in degree.”
Mrs. MacCracken was born Mary Burnham on June 6, 1926, in Englewood, N.J., to Clifford Burnham, an insurance broker, and the former Florence Ferguson. She grew up in Tenafly, N.J. A brother, Robert, was killed by a car while riding his bicycle to school when he was 12 and she was 7.
She attended Wellesley College from 1943 to 1945 but left to marry Peter Thistle, an insurance broker, with whom she had three children. After their divorce, she married Calvin Dodd MacCracken, an inventor, in 1969. In addition to her daughter Susan, she is survived by another daughter, Nan Thistle, and a son, Stephen Thistle. Mr. MacCracken died in 1999.
While volunteering for about seven years at the Forum School in Waldwick and the Luther Lee Emerson School in Demarest, both in New Jersey, Mrs. MacCracken completed her bachelor’s degree and received a master’s degree with a focus on learning disabilities from what is now William Paterson University. She had a private practice diagnosing and treating children with learning disabilities until she was in her 70s, her family said.
Her book “City Kid” (1981) focused on a boy who had a history of arson and burglary, and “Turnabout Children: Overcoming Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities” (1987) recounted her work with five patients whose cases were neither more nor less severe than others but who were “the ones who cried out the loudest,” she wrote, “demanding to be heard, to have their stories told.”