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Autism World Loses A Giant: Bernard Rimlan

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  • Karen Eck
    Autism World Loses A Giant: Bernard Rimland Autistic children and their parents said goodbye to their best friend and greatest champion on Tuesday, November
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 25, 2006
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      Autism World Loses A Giant: Bernard Rimland

      Autistic children and their parents said goodbye
      to their best friend and greatest champion on
      Tuesday, November 21st when Dr. Bernard Rimland,
      founder and director of the Autism Research
      Institute, passed away at the age of 78.

      Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, who is assuming the
      position of Director of ARI, says, “Dr. Rimland
      will go down in history as the person who ended
      the ‘dark ages’ of autism and spearheaded the
      fight to bring hope and help to autistic
      children. When he began his work in the field of
      autism in the 1960s, psychiatrists blamed parents
      for their children’s autism, institutionalized
      those children, and ‘treated’ them by drugging
      them into submission. Today, autistic children
      receive effective educational interventions and
      biomedical treatments that bring about dramatic
      improvement and often even recovery. At every
      step of this revolution, Dr. Rimland led the
      way­and at every step, he had to fight
      tooth-and-nail against an establishment determined to maintain the status quo.”

      Dr. Rimland’s forty years of work on behalf of
      autistic children began with a single child: his
      own son, Mark Rimland, born in 1956. In the most
      recent version of the DAN! treatment manual, Dr.
      Rimland wrote, “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.’”

      It wasn’t until Mark turned two that Dr.
      Rimland’s wife, Gloria, remembered reading in
      college about children with symptoms like their
      child’s. Digging through a dusty box of Gloria’s
      textbooks in the garage, Dr. Rimland saw the word
      “autism” for the first time. That discovery was
      the first step in a quest that covered nearly half a century.

      Dr. Rimland’s battle to help autistic children
      began in the early 1960s, when psychoanalysis
      reigned and professionals believed that autism
      stemmed from a “refrigerator mother’s”
      subconscious rejection of her child. Treatments,
      prescribed by leading authority Bruno Bettelheim
      and other psychoanalysts, included having
      children kick and spit on statues representing their mothers.

      Knowing that Mark was a greatly loved child and
      that the “refrigerator mother” theory was both
      wrong and destructive, Dr. Rimland set out to
      discover all that was known about autism. He
      scoured libraries for articles on autism,
      including foreign articles he had translated, and
      found, as he noted later, “not a shred of
      evidence” to support the hypothesis that bad parenting caused autism.

      What he discovered, instead, was powerful
      evidence that autism was a biological disorder­a
      fact that seems obvious now, but was
      revolutionary at the time. He outlined this
      evidence in his seminal book Infantile Autism:
      The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural
      Theory of Behavior, published in 1964. The book
      changed the autism world forever: it won the
      Century Award for distinguished contribution to
      psychology and, as one reporter put it, “blew
      Bettelheim’s theory all to hell.” For parents,
      the nightmare of being blamed for their
      children’s terrifying disorder was over.

      Most people would be content to rest on their
      laurels at that point, but Dr. Rimland was barely
      getting warmed up. He’d revolutionized an entire
      field, but he still had no way to help his own
      son. So he formed the National Society for
      Autistic Children (NSAC), now known as the Autism
      Society of America. Through this group, parents
      of children with autism­a very rare disorder, at
      the time­could offer each other moral support and
      practical advice about which therapies worked and which didn’t.

      Dr. Rimland started ASA in large part to promote
      “behavior modification” (now known as Applied
      Behavioral Analysis, or ABA), a treatment then
      being pioneered by a very controversial young
      psychologist named Ivar Lovaas. Authorities in
      the autism field scoffed at Lovaas’s claim that
      autistic children could be helped by something as
      simple and straightforward as behavior
      modification, but Dr. Rimland spread the word
      through NSAC and parents began fighting for this
      therapy for their children. Today, of course, ABA
      is the educational treatment of choice for
      autistic children, and many autistic children who
      receive early ABA improve dramatically.

      Dr. Rimland knew, however, that educational
      treatments alone could not adequately address a
      devastating biological disorder such as autism.
      In 1967, he started the nonprofit Autism Research
      Institute in order to create a worldwide research
      center and clearinghouse for biomedical
      treatments (which barely existed at the time). In
      1985, he retired from his career as a
      psychologist for the Navy to devote the remainder
      of his life to autism research.

      The first treatment Dr. Rimland investigated,
      based on reports from parents of autistic
      children, was high-dose vitamin B6. Other
      authorities in the autism field considered the
      idea that a vitamin could correct a brain
      disorder to be preposterous, but time and
      research proved them wrong. To date, 22 studies
      (including 13 double-blind studies) show that
      vitamin B6, typically combined with magnesium,
      benefits a large percentage of autistic children.

      “One of the most remarkable things about Dr.
      Rimland,” says Dr. Edelson, “is that he realized
      in the early days that parents held many of the
      keys to solving the mystery of autism. From day
      one, he listened to them and respected them­and
      he followed their lead. If five or six parents
      reported, ‘DMG makes my child much better,’ he
      didn’t ignore them; instead, he organized a study
      to see if other children responded the same way.
      For a professional psychologist, even one who was
      the parent of an autistic child, this was a
      revolutionary viewpoint­and it’s a key reason why
      ARI has always led the way in identifying new
      treatments and uncovering the roots of autism.”

      One important clue contributed by parents of
      autistic children put ARI squarely in the middle
      of a huge controversy: the debate about the
      safety of vaccines. Early in his work, Dr.
      Rimland received many reports of children who had
      no disability before receiving DPT vaccinations.
      As time went on, the number of reports
      snowballed, and included other vaccines. At the
      same time, as the number of vaccines received by
      children grew, autism rates began climbing
      relentlessly. When Dr. Rimland learned that most
      childhood vaccines contained thimerosal­a
      preservative that is nearly 50% mercury, a
      powerful neurotoxin­he realized that the
      escalating numbers of vaccines given to children
      could be the culprit behind skyrocketing rates of
      autism. His suspicions grew when he discovered
      that the symptoms of autism bear many
      similarities to the symptoms of mercury poisoning.

      The medical establishment, not surprisingly,
      expressed great antagonism toward this theory.
      They turned a blind eye as well to strong
      evidence implicating wheat and milk proteins,
      persistent measles infection in the gut from MMR
      vaccines, and other environmental factors in
      causing or exacerbating autism. And they
      continued to scorn biomedical treatments, even
      when hundreds and eventually thousands of parents
      reported that these treatments worked – often
      dramatically. So Dr. Rimland began yet another
      new project, this time aimed at quickly
      identifying causes of autism and promoting the
      safe and effective treatments that mainstream medicine refused to investigate.

      To accomplish this mission he created the Defeat
      Autism Now! (DAN!) project, jump-starting the
      project in 199- by bringing together dozens of
      the world’s leading researchers in different
      fields to create a state-of-the-art treatment
      plan and prioritize research goals. This small
      first meeting grew into a worldwide DAN! movement
      that now includes huge standing-room-only
      conferences, major research projects, a treatment
      manual, and hundreds of DAN!-trained physicians.
      A happy offshoot of this massive effort is the
      “Recovered Autistic Children” project, in which
      parents whose children improve or even recover
      because of DAN!-oriented treatment are spreading
      the word that “autism is treatable.” Dr. Rimland
      and Dr. Edelson also collaborated on Recovering
      Autistic Children, a book of stories about
      children who improved or recovered as a result of DAN!-oriented treatment.

      In addition to these projects, Dr. Rimland served
      as a technical advisor for Rainman, the
      Academy-Award-winning film that introduced
      millions of moviegoers to the world of the
      autistic savant. As editor of the Autism Research
      Review International, now in its twentieth year
      of publication, he also provided parents and
      professionals with crucial information about
      autism treatments and research­as well as with
      his trademark editorials, often scorching in
      their condemnation of established medicine’s failure to help autistic children.

      Dr. Rimland achieved worldwide fame and a
      reputation as a giant in his field, and his
      friends ranged from Hollywood stars to national
      media figures. Yet unlike many professionals, he
      didn’t know the meaning of an “ivory tower.” In
      his few free moments each day, he responded to
      letters, phone calls, faxes, and emails from
      thousands of distraught parents around the world.
      His vast network of friends knew him as an
      extraordinarily generous soul and an
      irrepressible “yenta,” whose greatest joy lay in
      bringing strangers together for the benefit of
      all. He was also a soft touch, incapable of
      saying “no” to any worthwhile cause­no matter how
      large or small. (The San Diego branch of the
      Autism Society was probably the only chapter
      whose Christmas party once featured an
      internationally-renowned autism researcher
      playing Santa Claus.) How did Dr. Rimland find
      time to juggle enough huge projects for ten
      lifetimes, and also help out every friend (or
      stranger) who needed a hand? He spent seven days
      a week in his office. Some nights, he slept on
      the office floor. And everyone who worked with
      him knew that if the phone rang at 10 p.m., it
      was Dr. Rimland with another idea – often an
      earth-shaking one. (Not all of his ideas and
      interests involved autism. He owned several
      patents for inventions, and was an inveterate “tinkerer.”)

      Dr. Rimland’s remarkable wife, Gloria, gracefully
      handled his nearly-impossible schedule while
      keeping a home with three children running
      smoothly. The autism community owes a huge debt
      of gratitude to Gloria Rimland for the
      inspiration and moral support she provided Dr.
      Rimland throughout the years – as well as her
      willingness to share her husband with an entire
      world of “autism parents.” The autism world sends
      its deep condolences to Gloria and to their children, Mark, Paul, and Helen.

      “Our community is greatly diminished by the loss
      of Dr. Rimland,” says Dr. Edelson. “His legacy,
      however, will live on in the work of ARI and the
      DAN! project – and in the joy of families whose
      children, dismissed as ‘hopeless’ and ‘incurable’
      by the medical establishment, are now leading
      happy, healthy, productive lives. It’s exactly
      the legacy that Dr. Rimland would want.


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