Bernard Rimland, 78; author was the father of modern autism research

Times Staff Writer

Bernard Rimland, the San Diego research psychologist widely considered the father of modern autism research, died Tuesday at a care facility in El Cajon after a prolonged battle against prostate cancer. He was 78.

Rimland’s 1964 book “Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior,” demolished the generally held view that autism was the psychological byproduct of “refrigerator mothers” -- cold, unfeeling women who forced their children to withdraw into a protective shell of indifference.

He concluded instead that the disorder, characterized by poor language skills and an inability to handle social relations, was the result of a fundamental biochemical defect underlain, perhaps, by defective genes but ultimately triggered by environmental assaults.


Rimland was among the first to conclude that the United States was undergoing an epidemic of autism, one that increased the incidence of the disorder from a rare one case in several thousand births to the current government-accepted rate of one in every 175 children.

He concluded that mercury in vaccines was the primary culprit in this increase and led a vociferous campaign among parents to have the heavy metal -- used to kill contaminating bacteria -- removed from the vaccines. The campaign had only limited success, in part because governmental and medical authorities disagreed with his conclusion.

Rimland was also a forceful advocate for intensive behavioral therapy for autistic children, a therapy that many claim has restored their children to normality.

Along the way, he founded the Autism Society of America, the largest parent-based autism organization in the country, with more than 100,000 members and supporters and 200 local chapters.

“I consider Dr. Rimland the ‘grand godfather’ of the movement for the understanding of the biological treatment of autism,” Dr. Jaquelyn McCandless wrote in her book “Children with Starving Brains: A Medical Treatment Guide for Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Added Lee Grossman, president and chief executive officer of the Autism Society, “No one has done more for autism than our founder, Bernie, and all in the autism community have been profoundly touched and have benefited through his decades of passion and dedication to our cause.”


That was not the career path he had planned.

Bernard Rimland was born Nov. 15, 1928, in Cleveland. The family moved to San Diego when he was 12 so his father could take a wartime metalworking job with Convair. He immediately fell in love with the city.

“Cleveland had been muggy and dirty,” he recalled in an interview. “I got here and said, ‘This is heaven. I’m never leaving.’ ”

He earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s in psychology at San Diego State University before leaving the state briefly to obtain a doctorate at Pennsylvania State University.

He married Gloria Belle Alf, the sister of a childhood friend, in 1951, two years before receiving his doctoral degree. After his graduation, the couple returned to San Diego, where he took a position with the personnel measurement research department at the Point Loma Naval Station.

Their life changed dramatically with the birth of their son Mark in 1956. Mark was a difficult, nearly unmanageable child. When Mark was 2, Rimland used one of his wife’s college textbooks to diagnose him as autistic -- a diagnosis soon confirmed by their pediatrician.

Despite his doctorate in psychology, Rimland had never heard of autism before, and he plunged into the scientific literature. The medical community, based largely on the work of behavioral scientist Bruno Bettelheim, still blamed mothers for the disorder.


Knowing that his wife was not cold and distant, Rimland began looking for an alternative explanation, visiting libraries throughout the country, interviewing doctors and taking copious notes.

“When I started my quest, autism was no less than an obsession,” he later wrote. “I quickly read everything I could find on the subject and hungered for more. This was war.”

After five years of research, he had a massive stack of papers. His wife told him he didn’t have a research paper but a book. The 1964 book was initially ignored by the medical establishment but was highly popular with psychology students.

More important, it was a hit with parents of autistic children, and they soon began bombarding him with letters and phone calls. After a full day of work for the Navy, he would spend evenings and weekends responding to the inquiries.

“So many parents have stories about calling him and talking for two or three hours,” Grossman said. “He always had encouraging remarks, and he always had very good advice.”

In 1967, he started what is now known as the Autism Research Institute, which still resides in a modest storefront on Adams Avenue in the Kensington area of San Diego. The office is stacked with books, newsletters, videos, boxes of research papers and piles of correspondence.


After he retired from the Navy 23 years ago, Rimland spent all his time in the office, except for the weeks he traveled the world, preaching the gospel of autism research and therapy. The official office hours were 8 a.m. to noon, but Rimland was there afternoons, evenings and weekends, talking to parents, writing reports, organizing conferences, working on books and answering the questions of reporters.

On one wall of the office is a poster for the Oscar-winning film “Rain Man,” which highlighted autism for a public that was largely unaware of the disorder. Rimland served as a technical advisor for the film, and Dustin Hoffman modeled his performance, in part, on Mark Rimland.

The papers “truly represent one man’s life work,” Grossman said. “If he had any other interests, other than his family, he never talked about it.”

In addition to his wife, Rimland is survived by his son Mark, now a well-known artist; another son, Paul; and a daughter, Helen.