Autism Pioneer Eric Schopler Dies at 79

Dr. Eric Schopler, whose pioneering techniques in humane and effective treatment of autism have been replicated around the world, died July 7 of cancer. He was 79.

A professor of psychiatry and psychology at UNC for more than 40 years, Schopler was one of the first to establish that autism is a treatable neurological disorder. Previously, parents were blamed for causing what was then held to be a psychological problem.

In 1971, Schopler co-founded and directed the UNC division TEACCH – Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren. A division of the psychiatry department in UNC’s School of Medicine, TEACCH enlists parents as co-therapists in customized treatments that help autistic children gain critical life skills. (The program was the subject of an in-depth feature in the Carolina Alumni Review in the January/February 2005 issue, available online to Carolina Alumni members.)

In North Carolina, TEACCH grew from an initial three clinics and 10 classrooms in public schools to nine clinics and more than 300 classrooms today. Experts from across the United States and around the world have visited Chapel Hill to study the program, replicated now in nations including Brazil, Denmark, Egypt, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain and Saudi Arabia.

“Dr. Schopler’s work erased the burden of unjustified guilt borne by many families and led to meaningful, productive lives for people with autism,” said Dr. Gary Mesibov, current TEACCH director. “For more than 35 years, the treatment that he developed has been the most widely used approach to autism in the world.”

Schopler wrote more than 200 books and articles on autism and related disorders. From 1974 through 1997, he edited the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

TEACCH grew out of a five-year pilot project at UNC in the 1960s, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health. Schopler and then-medical resident Dr. Robert Reichler, now of Seattle, proved the effectiveness of new treatment methods. Parents involved in the pilot petitioned the N.C. General Assembly for permanent funding. Today, support comes from the state, fees for services, grants and donations.

Schopler was born in Germany in 1927. His family moved to the United States in 1938 in the face of the Holocaust. They settled eventually in Rochester, N.Y. Schopler often said that his brush with the Holocaust led to his life’s work with autism, because it fostered his interest in why some individuals and groups are excluded and misinterpreted by others.

His awards included the American Psychiatric Association’s Gold Achievement Award in 1972; the O. Max Gardner Award in 1985, from the UNC System Board of Governors, for his “great contribution to the welfare of the human race”; the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest honor, in 1993; and the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

Last year, friends and family established an Eric Schopler Lifetime Achievement Award for leadership in understanding and treatment of autism, first awarded to Schopler, and a fund to create an Eric Schopler Endowed Chair in Autism Research at UNC.

A memorial service is being planned for early September.

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