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The Saving Grace of Mothers Then and Now: Dr. Bernard Rimland

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If you read last week’s post you’re not only familiar with my anger over the blame placed on mothers for their child’s autism, but gratitude for the man who abolished that theory. He completely flipped the world and scientific community with his own theory, one that obliterated the misconceptions perpetuated by Kanner and Bettelheim that cold-mothering caused autism. His passion fueled ground breaking treatment and awareness of autism, saving mothers from blame, shame, and a fate they didn’t deserve. To me, he will always be the father of autism and his name is Dr. Bernard Rimland. 

I had the honor of meeting him at a biomedical convention for autism in San Diego in 2003. During a lunch break I was eating alone and he asked if he could join me. What transpired in the 45 minutes that followed was the most profound and uplifting conversation I’ve ever had regarding autism. Right from the man who started it all. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Bernard Rimland, let me enlighten you. Dr. Rimland single-handedly shattered the previously accepted views that autism was caused by refrigerator mothers with his book: Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implication for a Neural Theory of Behavior. His thesis turned the field every which way but loose and led to much needed guidance and understanding of how to treat individuals on the autism spectrum.

What prompted years of research and devotion was his son, Mark. Like other parents with children on the spectrum, Dr. Rimland and his wife recognized their son was not responding and developing like other infants. Discouraged by lack of information, his wife remembered reading a psychology journal that described children who acted like Mark. It was the first time Dr. Rimland had seen the word autism despite his advanced degrees in psychology.

Most of the literature at that time was of a general consensus that autism was caused by cold and indifferent parenting, more specifically, mothers, with Kanner and Bettelheim leading the assertion. Rimland and his wife were incensed by such ridiculous allegations. What followed for the next 5 years was nothing less than a relentless pursuit of the underlying cause of autism. One story tells of the time Rimland convinced the head librarian at Tulane University to lock him inside their medical library overnight so he could find and read articles. This undeterred dedication is what led to his groundbreaking thesis that was awarded The Century Psychology Series Award for significant contribution to the field of psychology.

Not only did Dr. Rimland clearly debunk the Refrigerator Mother theory (which Leo Kanner later apologized for implying), but he addressed other important issues related to autism like diagnosis, genetics, cognition and a possible neurological site of damage. He went on to explain how biological factors were a more consistent cause of autism, including prevalence of autism in boys, most siblings not having autism and others. He also concluded that there was likely a genetic component as well.

Rimland even included a checklist in the appendix of his book titled “Diagnostic Checklist for Behavior Disturbed Children”. Parents who read his book ripped out the checklist and mailed the pages to him asking for suggestions. His contributions continued for decades after his book was published. 

He founded the Autism Society of America in 1965 to help distribute information to families regarding treatment, especially behavioral techniques. Two years later, he founded the Autism Research Institute to provide a central, unbiased organization that would conduct studies, track research and encourage more scientists to study autism.

I could fill pages of his other accomplishments and contributions to autism, including the appearances he made at conventions, like the one I attended. How the man found time to eat or sleep remains a mystery!

After returning from my trip, I ended up writing him a letter. Thanking him for all of his tireless advocating, research, and expertise regarding autism. Thanking his wife for her sacrifices and contributions as well. Telling him what those 45 minutes meant to me and how it helped guide and shape my path forward. How important his work has been and will continue to be for the future of families with autism. All from a man whose modesty and intellect were as monumental as his kindness and persistence to help so many families all over the world. Remembering how he excused himself from our lunch, apologizing that he needed to take little naps throughout the day so he would be available to take calls from across the globe, clearly something he did every day.

It never occurred to me that a man this busy would reply to my letter. But true to the man he was, he did just that. Dr. Rimland thanked me for the kind words and said that he shared my letter with his wife. That it was an honor and privilege to help families like mine and to keep the faith and carry on. That my son was lucky to have me in his corner and he wished us well. To this day I still have his letter and read it when I feel I need a boost. And I’m so grateful for the time I spent with him and the lessons I learned. 

Bernard Rimland passed away on November 21, 2006. He was 78 years old. November is a month where we celebrate thanksgiving and gratitude. 

That is how I will remember Dr. Rimland. With a debt of gratitude and thanks for all he did and the legacy he left behind.

1 Response

  1. Wow! Ms. Kristi this literally brought me to tears! You are an inspiration! I cannot wait to read and study about Dr. Rimland. I am thankful to know you and Jane worked with you!

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