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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Autism researchers criticized for shift

Chapel Hill -- Recent affiliation and leadership changes at an autism research and training program at the University of North Carolina have caused a stir among the program's supporters, including the son of the program's founder.

Tom Schopler, son of Eric Schopler, founder of Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children (TEACCH), said he and other supporters have serious concerns about the leadership change and the university's general stewardship of the TEACCH.

"The real story is stewardship," said Schopler, whose father died in 2006.

The university announced last month that Gary Mesibov, the former director, was stepping down after spending 31 of his 35 years on the UNC faculty at TEACCH.

With Mesibov's departure, the university also announced that oversight of TEACCH would be shifted from the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) to the dean's office of the School of Medicine.

Mesibov has been replaced by Margaret B. Dardess, associate vice chancellor for strategic alliances in the School of Medicine, until a new director is found.

Tom Schopler questioned the choice.

"Why would you put someone in control who has no knowledge of the position?" he said.

William L. Roper, dean of the School of Medicine, said in a news release last month that a "comprehensive review" of the program has been initiated to assure that it continues to serve individuals with autism and the people of North Carolina.

"We anticipate that this will be a deliberate and thoughtful process that will draw significantly on the experience and views of the many people who have made TEACCH a great program, including the families, supporters and friends," Roper said in the news release.

In a February letter, Roper responded to four questions submitted by UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp about the operation of the program, including a claim that an inappropriate $120,000 charge was made against the TEACCH endowment to pay for an audit.

Roper wrote that no $120,000 charge was made against the account. He did acknowledge that roughly $68,000 from the endowment's interest account was spent on an independent financial review of the program's finances and to support a part-time, temporary employee to process a backlog of service accounts.

"So there is no confusion about this, I have instructed my budget staff to reimburse this account with non-state funds from the Dean's Office for these charges," Roper wrote.

But Tom Schopler wondered why the money would be reimbursed if there was no wrongdoing.

"If it's an appropriate expenditure, why refund it from the dean's office?" he asked.

Roper also addressed concerns that recent TEACCH layoffs were done to avoid layoffs in CIDD.

He said there was no reduction to the clinical staff and that he is confident that the decision to lay off central office staff "was appropriate and that TEACCH was not affected disproportionately to other School of Medicine units."

Roper said TEACCH experienced a 14.7 percent decrease in the number of employees while CIDD units experienced greater decreases, ranging from 29.9 percent to 66 percent.

By Gregory Childress, (919) 419-6645, The Herald-Sun


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