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News Release

For immediate use

July 11, 2006 -- No. 341

Local angles: Asheville, Chapel Hill, Charlotte,
Fayetteville, Gastonia, Greensboro, Greenville, Raleigh,
Wilmington; Chicago; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle

Photo: To download a photo, see end of story.

Pioneer in humane treatment
for autism, Eric Schopler, dies

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

A professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 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.

Schopler co-founded (in 1971) and directed the UNC-Chapel Hill division TEACCH - Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren. A division of the psychiatry department in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, TEACCH enlists parents as co-therapists in customized treatments that help autistic children gain critical life skills.

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. The clinics are in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Gastonia, Greensboro, Greenville, Raleigh and Wilmington.

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."

The TEACCH model was recognized by professionals in psychiatry through its inclusion in the treatment volume of "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." In 1991, Schopler joined an Autism Society of America meeting with then-President George Bush on the needs of people with autism.

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 successfully petitioned the state legislature for permanent funding. Today, support comes from the state, fees for services, grants and donations.

Under Schopler's leadership, TEACCH added a training program for parents and professionals; internship and post-doctoral programs for university students and graduates; and an employment program for adults with autism.

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.

Schopler earned three degrees at the University of Chicago, completing a doctorate in clinical and child psychology in 1964. His work with autism began there, with research for his dissertation, which showed that children with autism relied more on touch and smell than on sight and sound.

His awards included the American Psychiatric Association's Gold Achievement Award in 1972; the O. Max Gardner Award in 1985, from the Board of Governors of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, 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.

The American Psychological Association honored Schopler with its Distinguished Professional Contributions to Public Service Award in 1985 and Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Advancement of Knowledge and Service in 1997. This year, the American Psychological Foundation will honor him with a Gold Medal for Life Achievement in the Application of Psychology.

At home near Mebane, Schopler raised chickens, horses, cows, rabbits and catfish with his family. "He always had an idea of something new and fun to try," said his son, Tom, of Chapel Hill. "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."

Schopler is survived by his wife, Margaret Schopler, and his children, Bobby, Tom and Susie Schopler, all of Chapel Hill; his sister, Irene Solomon, of Escondido, Calif.; seven grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.

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-Chapel Hill.

In lieu of flowers, Schopler's family requested donations to the endowed chair fund, c/o Jean Yardley, Division TEACCH, CB 7180, UNC, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-7180; Friends of Tar Heel Angels, Pediatrics Department, CB 7220, School of Medicine, UNC, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-7220; or the Piedmont Wildlife Center, 605-A N.C. Highway 54 West, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516.

A memorial service is being planned for early September. Details will be posted on the TEACCH Web site, www.teacch.com. For more information, call TEACCH at (919) 966-2173 or (919) 966-8183.

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Photo URL: http://www.unc.edu/news/pics/faculty/former/schopler_eric-1.JPG

Note: Mesibov can be reached at (919) 966-8189 or gary_mesibov@med.unc.edu. The Associated Press has distributed the following article, published Saturday (July 8) in The News & Observer of Raleigh: http://www.newsobserver.com/680/story/458599.html

TEACCH contacts: Brenda Denzler, (919) 966-8183, denzler@email.unc.edu; Dr. Lee Marcus, (919) 966-4684 (work) or (919) 967-6916 (home)
News Services contacts: Print, L.J. Toler, (919) 962-8589; broadcast, Karen Moon, (919) 962-8595