Welcome to the web log in memory of Dr. Eric Schopler (1927-2006), a professor of psychiatry and psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill for more than 40 years and a pioneer in the humane and effective treatment of autism. In an era when parents were blamed for causing what was felt to be a psychological problem, Eric was one of the first to use empirical research to establish the true, neurological basis of autism and its effective treatment--treatment that included parents as co-therapists. His methods have been studied and adopted by autism programs around the world, bringing hope and brighter futures to thousands of families in dozens of countries. In the process, hundreds of people have come to know and admire him and have been privileged to call him "friend." This web log is dedicated to sharing and preserving the memories that these friends, family and colleagues have of this truly unique and great man.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Autism pioneer Schopler dies at 79


CHAPEL HILL -- Eric Schopler, an international pioneer in the humane and effective treatment of autism, died from esophageal cancer Friday at age 79.

Forty-one years ago, the UNC psychologist co-founded a program that rejected the notion that destructive parents caused autism. Instead, he recognized autism as a brain disorder -- one that could be managed.

He observed that people living with autism did not learn in traditional ways but were capable of learning, especially with customized interventions from therapists, family and teachers.

Those insights led to the development of Division TEACCH -- Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children -- a network of nine state-funded clinics that are still operating. To this day, families stream to North Carolina to enroll in the TEACCH programs, which have inspired autism therapy programs in countries throughout the world.

"He influenced tens of thousands of people," said Catherine Lord, a prominent University of Michigan psychologist who worked with Schopler in Chapel Hill early in her career.

"Not only did he develop treatment, he had this understanding about what autism is and how it could be treated in the family and broader context of the community and in the schools. That was unique," Lord said.

The child of German parents forced to flee Hitler in the 1930s, Schopler was deeply motivated by injustice, friends and family said Friday. He saw stark unfairness while training in psychology at the University of Chicago with the Freudian psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who compared the parents of autistic children to concentration camp guards.

But while working with those families, Schopler saw instead caring people who frequently raised normal children in the same household. As a young professor at UNC, he and child psychiatrist Robert J. Reichler MD started a research project that described autism as a brain disorder, not an emotional problem, and developed strategies to help parents accommodate their child's disabilities.

"It was very courageous of him. He came as an assistant professor and took on the whole establishment in his department as well as the whole country," said Gary Mesibov, who took over as executive director at TEACCH after Schopler retired from that post in 1993.

In addition to his wife, Schopler is survived by two sons, Bobby and Tom, and one daughter, Susie, all living in or near Chapel Hill.

If anyone wishes to make a donation in Schopler's name, his family asks that three causes be considered: the Eric Schopler Endowed Chair for Autism Research at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Piedmont Wildlife Center and Friends of the Tarheel Angels, which helps children with cancer.

Staff writer Jean Fisher contributed to this story. Contact staff writer Catherine Clabby at 956-2414 or cclabby@nando.com.


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