Bernard Rimland

Psychologist researcher into autism who overturned the theory that it was a reaction to bad parenting

Tuesday 28 November 2006 01:00 GMT

Bernard Rimland, psychologist: born Cleveland, Ohio 15 November 1928; Founder, Autism Society of America 1965; Founder, Autism Research Institute 1967; married 1951 Gloria Alf (two sons, one daughter); died San Diego, California 21 November 2006.

The psychologist Bernard Rimland was a tireless researcher who brought hope to thousands of autistic children and their parents, destroying the myth, once prevalent, that autism was an emotional disorder caused by "refrigerator mothers".

Despite having taken a degree in Psychology at San Diego State University, followed by a PhD in Experimental Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Rimland had never come across the term "autism" when his first son, Mark, was born, with obvious developmental problems, in 1956. As he told me many years later,

We had no idea what was going on. Our paediatrician was totally baffled. Then my wife Gloria remembered reading in one of my college textbooks about a child wandering around, staring into space, not recognising people and so forth; we looked it up and there was the word "autism".

Although the term had been coined by Eugen Beiler in 1911, the first clinical description of autism, by Leo Kanner, only dated from 1943, and in the Fifties the condition was still rare and poorly understood. As soon as his son was diagnosed, Rimland threw himself into what became a lifelong quest to research the whole range of what are now called "autism spectrum disorders".

He soon found himself in direct conflict with the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who believed that autism was a reaction to bad parenting. Bettelheim eventually expounded this damaging thesis in his 1967 book The Empty Fortress. Meanwhile, determined to disprove Bettelheim, Rimland scoured all the available research literature, finding not a scrap of evidence to support the theory. His own book Infantile Autism: the syndrome and its implications for a neural theory of behavior (1964) insisted that autism was a biological disorder which could be treated - or at least ameliorated - with biomedical and behavioural therapies.

For the rest of his life Rimland devoted every spare moment to amassing a vast database of research and case histories, founding the Autism Society of America in 1965 and the Autism Research Institute (ARI) in 1967. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the treatment of autistic children was his championing of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) - an educational approach pioneered by the Norwegian psychologist Ivar Lovaas at UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles). Based on a series of drills, starting with very simple instructions, building up to successively more complex instructions, punctiliously rewarding success at every stage, the method has helped many autistic children not only to gain the first rudiments of language, but also to begin to understand normal social behaviour.

One-to-one ABA teaching has helped many autistic children - particularly the higher functioning ones - to progress from home education or special units to mainstream education, and now has wide acceptance in the professional autism world. Rimland's views on the biological causes - and biomedical treatments - of autism remain more controversial. He always acknowledged the likelihood of a genetic component in autism spectrum disorders. However, he was also convinced that, with many children, this genetic susceptibility was triggered by external insults.

When I last spoke to him, he cited three main categories: environmental pollutants such as agricultural products, car emissions and food colourings; antibiotics destroying beneficial bacteria and giving rise to candida; and, most controversially, "medical pollution" from vaccinations. He was convinced that thimerasol - the mercury-based preservative used in the DPT triple jab (against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) - was a likely cause of autism. He also supported the demonised gastronterologist Andrew Wakefield's suggestion that the interaction of live viruses in the MMR injection (against measles, mumps and rubella) could be another cause of autism, pointing out the huge increase of late-onset autism during the 1980s, when MMR was introduced.

After retiring from his post as a naval psychologist in 1985, Rimland spent all his time, seven days a week, in the Autism Research Institute office at his home in San Diego. Amassing over 37,000 case histories, he insisted that there had a been vast increase in the incidence of autism. The standard riposte - that doctors have become more aware of the condition and better at diagnosing it - cut no ice with him. Testifying before the House Committee on Government Reform in April 2000, he stated, "That is nonsense. Any paediatrician, teacher or school official with 20 or more years experience will confirm . . . [that] there is a real increase in autism and the numbers are rising."

His views on biomedical treatments were equally controversial. He advocated vitamin supplements - in particular large doses of vitamin B6 with magnesium - and, for some children, gluten- and casein-free diets. Many medical professionals dismissed his ideas as cranky theories lacking any supporting evidence; but thousands of parents thought differently, or at the very least found that diet and supplements seemed to make the lives of their autistic children easier.

Parents' evidence can always be dismissed as being unreliably subjective; nevertheless, Rimland's basic theory, and that of other researchers in the field - that many autistic children have weak immune systems and digestive systems which make them both vulnerable to environmental insults and poor at absorbing nutrients - does make a lot of sense. His mission was to find ways of treating that fragility.

Rimland was expert adviser to the Hollywood movie Rain Man (1988). Although Dustin Hoffman's brilliant performance as the uncannily numerate autistic savant left many people with the assumption that all autists must be brilliant mathematicians, artists or musicians - only a tiny minority actually have those "savant" skills - the film did at least make the public much more aware of autism in general. For Rimland, Hollywood was just a brief diversion from the work of the ARI, from where he trawled the world's research papers, amassing a vast database on every aspect of autism research and sharing new discoveries in his quarterly newsletter. He often worked late into the night, answering letters and e-mails from parents, or discussing treatments on the telephone, always ready to share information and fanatical to the end in his quest to keep exploring the autism spectrum disorders about which so much is still unknown.

His son Mark grew up to become a successful artist, and Rimland and his wife had another son, Paul, and a daughter, Helen.

Stephen Venables

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