Bernard Rimland; psychologist 'ended the dark ages of autism'
November 22, 2006
Bernard Rimland, a psychologist whose unremitting quest for answers to autism opened a new era of treatment and hope for victims of the brain disorder, died of cancer yesterday. He was 78.
Dr. Rimland, executive director and founder of the Autism Research Institute in Kensington, died at Victoria Special Care in El Cajon, said Jean Walcher, a spokeswoman for the family.
In challenging the once-prevailing theory that the condition stemmed from a mother's subconscious rejection of her child, Dr. Rimland found that autism was a biological disorder. His evidence was outlined in his seminal book, “Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior,” published in 1964.
“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,” said Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, his successor at the helm of the Autism Research Institute.
As the father of an autistic son, Mark, born in 1956, Dr. Rimland began to exhaustively research what at the time was a mystery to parents as well as the medical profession.
In so doing, he once noted, there is “not a shred of evidence” to support the hypothesis that indifferent parenting caused the disorder.
In 1967, while employed as a Navy psychologist, Dr. Rimland founded his nonprofit institute a block from his home to create an international source of research and information for biomedical treatments. When he retired from his Navy job in 1985, he devoted the rest of his life to autism research.
“Now I spend 80 hours a week on autism,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1998.
“He was the pioneer who changed everything about the way autism is viewed; parents and professionals owe him everything,” said Chantal Sicile-Kira, an autism author and activist who has a 17-year-old son with the disorder.
“Bernie was like a god to parents like me,” Sicile-Kira said. “He's revered all over the world for moving forward biomedical interventions through research.”
Dr. Rimland created the National Society for Autistic Children, now known as the Autism Society of America, to bring together parents of children with autism and to promote a treatment known as Applied Behavior Analysis. The latter, pioneered by psychologist Ivar Lavaas, has proved successful as the educational treatment of choice for autistic children.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as one in 166 Americans 21 or younger is afflicted with autism, which affects children in different ways.
The variety of symptoms include withdrawal from human contact, sensory confusion, parrotlike speech, a compulsion for sameness and a repetitive self-stimulating behavior such as tapping teeth.
Sometimes the symptoms are accompanied by extraordinary talents, as in the case of the autistic savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 Academy Award-winning movie “Rain Man,” for which Dr. Rimland was a technical adviser.
In the 1990s, Dr. Rimland expanded his influence by co-founding Defeat Autism Now!, widely known as DAN!®, which brought together dozens of the world's leading researchers in diverse fields to define research goals and pursue a state-of-the-art treatment plan.
The effort spawned annual conferences on both coasts, major research projects, a treatment manual and hundreds of DAN!-trained physicians.
Dr. Rimland also reached parents and professionals as editor of a newsletter, Autism Research Review International, updating readers on treatments and research.
He was at the forefront of the controversial concept of vitamin therapy to address autism, particularly high doses of B6. More than 20 studies show that B6, typically combined with magnesium, benefits a large percentage of autistic children, according to the Autism Research Institute.
Equally controversial was his suggestion that child vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative that is nearly 50 percent mercury, could promote autism. His suspicions grew when he discovered that symptoms of autism bear many similarities to the symptoms of mercury poisoning.
“Bernie wasn't afraid to have people say, 'Gosh, this guy's nuts; it's a crazy idea,' ” Sicile-Kira said. “He felt that if it could be validated by research it's worth trying so long as it's not going to hurt somebody.”
Dr. Rimland, a San Diegan since 1940, was born Nov. 15, 1928, in Cleveland.
In the early 1950s, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in experimental psychology at San Diego State College. He received a doctorate in the discipline in 1954 from Pennsylvania State University.
As a research psychologist in the Navy, he designed tests to measure a recruit's aptitude for various jobs. In 1955, he became an adjunct professor in psychology at San Diego State.
When he became a first-time father in 1956, he began to seek solutions and answers to his son's behavior.
“Mark was a screaming, implacable infant who resisted being cuddled and struggled against being picked up. He also struggled against being put down,” he later wrote.
After finding no psychological basis for the disorder in his research, he devoted his free time to studying neuropsychology in an effort to understand the physiological factors. His quest led to the manuscript for “Infantile Autism,” which received the Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology before it was published as a book.
Once the book was published, he was inundated with letters and calls from parents.
“I will never stop until I have found the answer or die, whichever comes first,” he told The San Diego Union in 1988. “I will find the answer, and if living to be 150 is what it takes – I'll do that, too.”
In recent months, as he fought cancer that originally was diagnosed in the prostate, Dr. Rimland was forced to reduce his workload. By the end of July, he was doing what work he could from his home.
Survivors include his wife, Gloria; sons, Mark Rimland and Paul Rimland, both of San Diego; daughter, Helen Landalf of Seattle; and two grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. today at Greenwood Memorial Park, 4300 Imperial Ave., San Diego.
Donations are suggested to The Autism Research Institute, 4182 Adams Ave., San Diego, CA 92116.
Jack Williams: (619) 542-4587; firstname.lastname@example.org