By all accounts Dr. Bernard Rimland is a hero. This was a man who courageously stood up against the prevailing views of the medical establishment in order to say that autism was not caused by mothers, and that, by his own account, autism was a neurological condition. Courage is not about jumping in front of a bullet. It is about standing up for your beliefs against intimidating odds. Courage is about your willingness to risk everything, not only for your own sake but that of others. Bernard Rimland changed the world-view of autism and gave us the shimmer of hope that we could all make a difference. In this blog, I have invited a good friend, Steve Edelson, to write some thoughts about Bernard Rimland. —Manuel F. Casanova, M.D..
A brief history of Dr. Bernard Rimland’s contributions to the field of autism
Written by Steve Edelson, Ph.D., friend and colleague for 30 years
Bernard Rimland, Ph.D. was a true pioneer and advocate in the autism field for almost 50 years. Soon after he and his wife realized that their son, Mark, had autism, Dr. Rimland studied and wrote about autism as well as provided guidance to countless parents and professionals. This effort was undertaken despite having a rather long and illustrious career working as a civilian researcher for the Navy. Until his retirement in 1985, Dr. Rimland spent his evenings and weekends dedicated to helping those on the autism spectrum.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dr. Rimland spent five years writing the award-winning book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior. The book destroyed the prevailing theory that very cold and unaffectionate mothers, referred to as “refrigerator mothers,” caused autism in their children; and at the same time, he argued for a physiological approach to understanding and treating autism.
A year later, in 1965, Dr. Rimland founded the Autism Society of America to provide support to families throughout the country and to promote the use of behavioral techniques patterned after Dr. Ivar Lovaas’ research at U.C.L.A. Two years later, Dr. Rimland founded the Autism Research Institute (ARI, formerly the Institute for Child Behavior Research) to encourage, network, and conduct research. Dr. Rimland also developed the Diagnostic E-2 checklist to diagnose a subgroup of autism that is often referred to as classical autism or Kanner’s syndrome. The checklist is still used by many parents and professionals.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Rimland spent a great deal of time fighting for educational rights, supporting Lovaas’ work on ABA, conducting research on nutritional supplements, such as vitamin B6 and magnesium, and writing about various cutting-edge topics, including restricted diets and a possible interaction between genetics and the environment. In 1987 Dr. Rimland began publishing a quarterly science newsletter, the Autism Research Review International, which summarized published research on medical, biomedical, sensory, and educational issues. The newsletter is still published today! In the mid-1980s, Dr. Rimland was the head consultant to the Academy Award winning movie Rain Man. Dr. Rimland was recruited to work on the script because of his research and writings on savant abilities. After reading the script, Dr. Rimland suggested that Raymond (Dustin Hoffman’s character) have autism rather than an intellectual impairment.
In the 1990s, Dr. Rimland, along with his colleagues, Drs. Sidney Baker and Jon Pangborn, started the biomedical movement to understand and treat individuals on the autism spectrum. The movement was referred to as Defeat Autism Now! The biomedical approached is focused primarily on the possibility of gastrointestinal, immune, and metabolic dysfunctions in autism. Although not wedded to a particular theory (e.g., mercury or measles virus) Dr. Rimland and many of his colleagues felt that research was needed to study the possible association between autism and vaccines.
Toward the end of his life, Dr. Rimland was overjoyed to receive reports from many parents and professionals about possible recovery in some individuals with autism, especially after they received intense medical and behavioral intervention – both of which he help spearhead.
Dr. Rimland passed away at age 78 in 2006 after a five-year battle with cancer, active and serving other to the end of his life.