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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Celebration of His Life

Eric Schopler, Ph.D.

Dr. Eric Schopler, 79, internationally recognized authority on the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders, died at his home outside Mebane, NC, on July 7, 2006, after a courageous battle with cancer.

Schopler revolutionized treatment for children and adults with autism through an extraordinary career that began in the early 1960s with his dissertation research on the perceptual preferences of children with autism. In the following years, he was instrumental in replacing then-prevailing psychodynamic theories of autism that blamed parents for the disorder, with research-based, developmental theories of causation. The success of his further research into appropriate and effective interventions for both children and parents led the State of North Carolina to establish in 1971 the first state-funded program for the treatment of children with autism. The program’s humane, innovative approach to autism at a time when the field was quite primitive has influenced autism treatment worldwide.

Schopler was born in 1927 in Furth, Germany, the second of three children of Ernst Schopler, a prominent attorney, and his wife Erna Oppenheimer. He often said that he had a deceptively pleasant childhood in that, while he was aware of Germany’s anti-Semitic social policies, he did not experience anti-Semitism personally. He noted, however, that he was aware that “There’s something wrong here,” since some of his Jewish teachers, friends, and acquaintances disappeared suddenly, were imprisoned, or were killed. This awareness coupled with his family’s sudden move to the United States to avoid being caught up in the looming Holocaust were responsible for his lifelong interest in the question of why certain individuals and groups become socially excluded, misinterpreted, and scapegoated by their fellow citizens.

The Schopler family emigrated to the United States in 1938, where Schopler’s father studied American law, obtained his doctorate from Harvard Law School, and then joined the staff of General Lucius Clay, military governor of Germany, as chief of the Legal Division commissioned to de-Nazify the laws in post-war Germany. Schopler finished high school in Rochester, New York, joined the U.S. Army, and then attended the University of Chicago, where he ultimately earned a graduate degree in social service administration and his Ph.D. in clinical child psychology in 1964.

It was while he was in graduate school that Schopler became interested in exploring the nature of autism (or “childhood schizophrenia,” as it was then called) and the twin questions of how best to treat it and what role parents should play in that process. He became convinced that the prevailing view of autism as a psychological disorder was wrong, that parents had been scapegoated as the cause of their children’s condition, and that the best remedy for the prevailing theoretical misinterpretation would come through empirical research. As a result, he designed his dissertation as an empirical study of autistic children’s receptor preferences. This research, which showed that children with autism tend to rely more on the near-receptor systems of touch and smell than on the distance-receptors of sight and sound, was one of the first studies to establish the neurological basis of the disorder.

Schopler joined the faculty of the Psychiatry Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1964 and soon began working with Dr. Robert Reichler, who was completing his residency in child psychiatry. Together, they pursued the implications of Schopler’s doctoral research for the treatment of autism, obtaining funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health for a study on the uses of structured environments in treatment. At the same time, they studied the parents of children with autism and found that, far from being the cause of their children’s condition, they could be very effective co-therapists in its treatment. This five-year research program was so successful in helping autistic children gain critical life skills that the families involved refused to let it end. In collaboration with Schopler and Reichler, they petitioned the state legislature for permanent funding, and Division TEACCH was born. From its foundation, the Division for the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren stressed the need for specialized educational interventions for autistic children and the importance of parent–professional collaboration. This TEACCH model has been recognized by psychiatric colleagues through inclusion in the treatment volume of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a cutting-edge intervention for the autism spectrum.

In the course of his 40-year career, Schopler was the author of more than 200 books and articles on autism spectrum disorders, the most recent being The TEACCH Approach to Autism Spectrum Disorders. From 1974 until 1997 he was the editor of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. His continued research led to the creation of some of the earliest diagnostic and treatment protocols, which are still widely used today, having been translated into ten foreign languages for use in autism programs around the world that follow the TEACCH model. Under Schopler’s leadership, the TEACCH program grew from three clinics and ten special autism classrooms in public schools, to nine clinics and more than 300 TEACCH-affiliated classrooms. The program also developed a comprehensive training division for parents and professionals worldwide, internship and postdoctoral programs for undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students, and, in recognition of the fact that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism, a supported employment program. In 1993, Schopler went into semi-retirement, turning control of the program over to Dr. Gary Mesibov, under whose direction it has continued to grow with the inauguration of the program’s first residential facility and vocational program.

Schopler received numerous awards for his work, including the American Psychiatric Association’s Gold Achievement Award for the Child Research Project in l972; UNC’s O. Max Gardner Award in 1985 for making the greatest contribution to human welfare; the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Professional Contributions to Public Service Award in l985; the NC Foundation for Health Research’s Eugene A. Hargrove Mental Health Research Award in 1988; the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest honor, in 1993; the Eden Institute’s 1995 Prize for Excellence in Service to People with Autism; the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Advancement of Knowledge and Service in 1997; the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005; IMFAR’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; and the American Psychological Foundation’s Gold Medal for Life Achievement in the Application of Psychology, which will be award posthumously later in 2006. In addition, Schopler has been honored by numerous awards from various autism organizations internationally.

One of the highlights for Schopler in this long series of recognitions occurred in May 2005 when friends and admirers from around the nation and the world gathered for a gala celebration to honor his lifetime of work for people with autism and to inaugurate two distinctions: the The Eric Schopler Lifetime Achievement Award, given in recognition of exemplary leadership in and enduring contributions to the understanding and treatment of autism, for which he was the first recipient, and the establishment of a fund in support of an Eric Schopler Endowed Chair in Autism Research at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Despite his busy professional life, Schopler had an equally full and rewarding personal life. In his spare time he raised chickens, horses, cows, rabbits and even catfish with his family at their home outside of Mebane, NC. He always had an idea of something new and fun to try. When he did not know how to do something himself, he was always able to find a friend that was willing to help and teach him. Whether he wanted to build a barn or a log cabin or plant an orchard, he always approached his endeavors with an excitement and energy that inspired others to get excited and energized as well. The results were wonderful.

If he were asked to prioritize what was important to him, he would say family first, community second and education third. He believed in “Western Enlightenment,” which he described as the recognition that democracies and societies are best suited to take care of their constituencies, and he applied this belief in his personal as well as in his professional life. His belief in the importance of his neighbors and neighborhood was the same belief that drove him to create such a close yet large neighborhood in the world of autism. That which made him a great psychologist also made him a great father, brother, uncle, grandfather, and friend. No matter who you were, he had the ability to make you feel special.

Schopler is survived by his wife, Margaret Schopler; his sister, Irene Solomon; his children, Bobby, Tommy and Susie Schopler; seven grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews. He is also survived by the very large community of professionals, parents, and individuals with autism from around the world whose lives have been touched by his life and his work.

When asked in 1998 about the one thing he was most proud of in his professional life, he replied, "I think it's cumulative, all of these little details. Just the fact that we're interested in autism, and how our program's going. I feel good about that. Even though it wasn't me by myself; it was all you guys. But I still feel good, because I really have had the most wonderful colleagues in this program."

"But, if you meant a particular, single event, such as getting a grant or getting awards, or getting things like that—I think it’s the parents. When they get genuinely appreciative and excited, and enthusiastic about the progress in their kid, well, that, to me, is probably as important as anything like outcome data. It’s unforgettable."

Clara Park, author and mother of artist Jessy Park, who has autism, has aptly expressed the sentiments of parents around the world about Eric Schopler:

"You, more than anyone else, lifted the terrible burden imposed by those who blamed us for our children’s condition, welcoming us as co-therapists and re-establishing us as normal, feeling, rational human beings. We thank you not only for ourselves and our generation of parents—and children now middle-aged—but for all the parents too young to realize what your work has meant to them—all over the world."

For those wishing to formally honor Eric Schopler’s memory, the family has asked that donations be made in his honor (in lieu of flowers) to three causes that have been especially important to him in recent years. Those are:

The Eric Schopler Endowed Chair in Autism Research
c/o Jean Yardley
Division TEACCH
CB# 7180
University of NC at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7180

The Piedmont Wildlife Center
605-A N.C. Hwy 54W
Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Friends of Tarheel Angels
Department of Pediatrics
University of NC at Chapel Hill
CB# 7220
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7220

A memorial service for Schopler is being planned for early September.

A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Eric Schopler

To remember and celebrate Eric’s life, there will be an informal potluck gathering for friends and family at the Schopler home outside Mebane, NC, on July 15, 2006, starting at 4:00 p.m. Guests are asked to bring their fondest memories of Eric (including photos and mementos, if desired), musical instruments (for those with a musical bent), and a dish and/or beverage to share. There will be an opportunity during the evening for anyone who wishes to say a few words about Eric to speak.

Carpooling is encouraged, as parking space may be limited. As a courtesy, an RSVP to Brenda Denzler (denzler@email.unc.edu or (919) 966-8183) or to Joan Berry (jbberry@email.unc.edu or (919) 966-2173) will help the family to make appropriate plans to accommodate everyone for the evening. Joan and Brenda can also provide directions to the Schopler home.


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