Autism World Loses A Giant: Bernard Rimlan
- 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 childrens 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. Rimlands 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 wasnt until Mark turned two that Dr.
Rimlands wife, Gloria, remembered reading in
college about children with symptoms like their
childs. Digging through a dusty box of Glorias
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. Rimlands battle to help autistic children
began in the early 1960s, when psychoanalysis
reigned and professionals believed that autism
stemmed from a refrigerator mothers
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
Bettelheims theory all to hell. For parents,
the nightmare of being blamed for their
childrens 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. Hed 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 didnt.
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 Lovaass 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
didnt 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 its 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 worlds 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 medicines 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
didnt 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. Rimlands 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. Its exactly
the legacy that Dr. Rimland would want.
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