Bernard Rimland - Education and Early Career

Education and Early Career

After completing his undergraduate studies at San Diego State University, Rimland obtained his PhD in experimental psychology and research design, from Pennsylvania State University in 1953.

Rimland's son, Mark, was born in 1956, when the diagnosis of autism was rare. From birth, however, something was drastically wrong with Mark. Rimland had recently earned his doctorate, but was not yet familiar with the word autism. Only much later was it determined Mark's condition fell into the category of early infantile autism, rather than regressive autism. Despite challenges, Mark has nevertheless become a talented artist.

After his son's diagnosis, Rimland set forth on a quest to understand autism and bring much needed attention to the disorder, in order to foster research into its causes and treatment. Rimland has often sparked controversy along his way.

Rimland published his book, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior, in 1964. Its foreword, by Leo Kanner, the man who first identified autism as a syndrome, gave the book credibility among professionals in the field. It was an about-turn for Kanner, the originator of the word "autism" and of the "refrigerator mother" theory; through his observations and research, Kanner had come to believe that autism had a neurological cause—the accepted view in the medical profession today. But at the time Rimland's book was published,and for many years afterwards, the standard theory was that autism was caused by unloving 'refrigerator mothers', an unproven but widely accepted idea most famously propounded by University of Chicago professor Bruno Bettelheim, notably in his book The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967), which claimed that the traumatized unloved child retreated into autism. As a professional research psychologist, Rimland was well positioned to launch the first major attack on Bettelheim's theory. Rimland's was the first authoritative voice to dispute Bettelheim's research and call into question his conclusions.

Parents from all over the United States, excited that for the first time a professional in the field did not accuse them of maltreating their autistic child, began to write to Rimland. He called a meeting in Teaneck, New Jersey, at the house of one of the families, and this small group of parents, including among others Ruth C. Sullivan (first president of the ASA), became the nucleus that founded the Autism Society of America.

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