Remembering Dr. Bernard Rimland
Bill Long 7/13/07
The Autism Society of America Annual Conference
As I write this I am at the annual conference of the Autism Society of America in Phoenix AZ. I think it is easier to get conference space in Phoenix in mid-July than it is in January, and so 1800 of us are all over the Kierland Hotel and Resort. I was talking to one of the concierges in the hotel yesterday, and he told me that greens fees on the hilly golf course outside of our air-conditioned prison are about 15% of normal at this time of year. A person can scamper from air-conditioned golf cart to nine iron shot back to air-conditioned cart. I scanned the golf course in vain yesterday afternoon, however, for any "takers." It is so hot that even the lizards don't seem to be scampering very quickly along the rocks.
Despite the heat, however, my thoughts have been on the conference and on the celebration of the life of Dr. Bernard Rimland, the "father" of the modern autism movement in America, who passed away last November. Dr. Rimland published his breathrough work Infantile Autism in 1964, a work in which he challenged the regnant theory of autism as caused primarily by psychological ("refrigerator mothers") rather than biological factors. Though Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger had published work in the 1940s about autistic children, by the 1960s the "big name" in the field was Bruno Bettleheim, whose work I first encountered in the late 1970s when I was studying mythology and fairy tales. Bettleheim was a convinced adherent of the "refrigerator mother" theory. His great stature in the field of psychology made him also the "authority" in autism.
Thus, when Dr. Rimland published his book (the motivation was the birth in March 1956 of his first child Mark, an autistic child, and his knowledge from first-hand experience that his wife was not a "refrigerator" mother), he was challenging the status quo in a major way. His tremendous energy and drive led to the formation of the Autism Society of America in 1965 and the Autism Research Institute in 1967. Though these societies drifted apart from each other in the 1980s and 1990s, they joined into a "memorandum of understanding" in 2007 to work together in a number of helpful ways in the future. It is a wonderful tribute to his memory.
My Visit to Dr. Rimland
Dr. Rimland has only been gone for about 8 months, but already there are people in leadership positions of the autism movement who are saying, "though I didn't know Dr. Rimland, I honor his memory and contribution." That is, he is already passing into legend and hagiography. When I realized this was happening, I decided I needed to write briefly on a special meeting I had with him in July 2006 at the offices of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. As Dr. Stephen Edelson, the new head of the ARI has told me, it was probably the last meeting he recalls where Dr. Rimland was able, for health reasons, to be fully engaged in the conversation.
In fact, my conversation with Dr. Rimland was a two-part talk. Steve and I first came to see him at the ARI office, where Steve introduced me as someone who possibly could do some writing on legal challenges faced by families with autistic children. Dr. Rimland was generous with his time and observations. He was curious as to my background, my writing, my essays, the way that I might be able to organize many of my essays into a variety of specialized books. In fact, though he was the one who was the really important person in the room, he treated me as if he was honored to meet me. I was taken aback, humbled, gratified to be sharing this special moment with him. My eyes scanned the office, overstuffed with research reports, files, and memorabilia from a lifetime of work in bringing autism to the consciousness of America. Just inside the front door is the picture of Dustin Hoffman (starring in Rainman), signed by Hoffman and dedicated to Dr. Rimland. I felt at that moment the 40+ years of energy, focus and passion that he had devoted to the autism movement.
Returning to Dr. Rimland
Steve and I then went out for coffee in the pleasant San Diego neighborhood surrounding the ARI. We met Mark Rimland, Dr. Rimland's autistic son who really was the on who launched the autism movement. Mark is 51, genial, known in the community by the shopkeepers. Then, in the afternoon, Steve Edelson and I returned to talk briefly again to Dr. Rimland, and we returned with one of the "rising stars" in the autism movement, Stephen Shore. Stephen (who is receving his doctorate from Boston University as I am writing this) has Asperger's syndrome and is now probably the most credible national spokesperson, apart from Temple Grandin, of the "face" of autism/asperger's syndrome by someone who has the condition. He was in town for a conference. So, the four of us sat and talked briefly at the ARI office. When Stephen Shore and Bernard Rimland shook hands, and Stephen gave him a copy of his books, I felt that, in a curious way, the torch was being passed from Bernie to Stephen as Stephen was passing his books to Bernie.
I had no idea that Dr. Rimland was as seriously sick with cancer at the meeting as I later discovered he was. In fact, as Steve Edelson told me, this might have been the last time when Dr. Rimland was "up" to meeting people. In the context of the conference I am now attending, and the near-mythic status which is being accorded (and will be accorded) to Dr. Rimland, I feel as if I am a most blessed person. I still hear his voice and see the passion in his eyes. I saw the exchange of books and "baton" from one generation to the next. I was able to enjoy it through the quiet, intelligent and unassuming offices of Steve Edelson.
It is a meeting I won't soon forget.