Sunday, November 26, 2006

Marking the Death of Bernard Rimland, Autism Researcher and Organizer

There's a telling line in today's Los Angeles Times article about the death last week of Bernard Rimland, 78, the autism researcher who smashed the "refrigerator mothers" myth as autism's cause with his 1964 book about the subject, and later founded the Autism Society of America, the oldest and largest advocacy group.

"This was not the career path he had planned," the article notes, matter-of-factly.

Who knows what work Rimland would have pursued with his doctorate in psychology. The fact was that once he set about trying to understand why his son Mark was so difficult to reach, he embarked on a decades-long project to share what he had learned about autism, to help other parents figure out what kinds of approaches were effective. By day, he worked as a Navy researcher in San Diego, and on nights and weekends he studied, wrote, talked with researchers and offered support to other parents seeking help, as the Los Angeles paper recounts. (Read the article by clicking here.) In 1964, Rimland published "Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior," a book that debunked the previously reigning theory offered by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim that autism was a child's response to cold, unfeeling parenting styles of some mothers.

In an article on the website of the non-profit Autism Research Institute (which Rimland founded), he describes how he began his efforts to help his son Mark, born in 1956.

“Mark was a screaming, implacable infant who resisted being cuddled and struggled against being picked up. He also struggled against being put down. Our pediatrician, Dr. Black, who had been in practice for 35 years, had never seen nor heard of a child like Mark. Neither Dr. Black nor I, who at that time was three years beyond my Ph.D. in psychology, had ever seen or heard the word ‘autism.’”
When their son turned two, Rimland's wife recalled reading in college about children with symptoms like Mark presented. He found the word "autism" in his wife's textbooks stored in the garage. (Read the Autism Research Institute's article here.) This article explains how Rimland became a big backer of Applied Behavior Analysis as a teaching methodology for kids with autism. In recent decades, Rimland established the Defeat Autism Now project, to research biomedical treatments for autism spectrum disorders. He also was a leading voice for ridding children's vaccinations of preservatives that contained mercury.

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