Modern medical science has only recently begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding autism and other developmental disabilities. Though in name “autism” is roughly a century old, it has only been understood as a diagnosable, genetic disability since the 1970s.

Given this timeline, many of the pioneers in autism care and research are modern individuals that made expansive contributions during the 20th and 21st century. As experts continue to uncover new and monumental details about autism, there may be many more to join the ranks of the distinguished men and women that have shaped our knowledge thus far.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest names in autism care and research, and how their contributions have refined the field over the decades.

1. Asperger and Kanner

The most notable pioneers preceded autism’s diagnosis status: both published worksin the 1940s describing children with autism, Hans Asperger in Vienna and Dr. Leo Kanner in Baltimore. Asperger, whom mild autistic disorder Asperger’s Syndrome is named after, believed that autism was on a continuum and not entirely uncommon, similar to the conclusions of modern scientists.

Kanner believed the disorder to be much rarer, and though his portrayal of autism was incredibly formative in American psychiatry, his views succumbed to the later discredited “refrigerator parent” theory in the 50s. This theory stigmatized autistic children and their families.

Asperger’s findings were ignored and disregarded during his lifetime in the shadow of Kanner. After his death in 1980, however, his research would be recognized for its scientific merit and Asperger’s place along the autism spectrum.

2. Rimland and Sullivan

In 1965, Dr. Bernard Rimland and Dr. Ruth Sullivan founded the Autism Society of America, the first and largest grassroots autism organization. Rimland, the father of a high-functioning autistic son, was an internationally recognized authority on autism spectrum disorders, as well as the founder and director of the Autism Research Institute in 1967.

Sullivan was the Autism Society’s first president as well as the founder of the Autism Services Center in 1979. She assisted in the production of the popular 1988 film Rain Man, which brought autism awareness into the public eye, and lobbied for public laws to provide disabled children with special education.

The Autism Society of America continues to be a top resource on autism, and holds the most comprehensive annual conference, attended by 2,000 people yearly.

3. Dr. Ivar Lovaas

Norwegian-American psychiatrist and professor Ole Ivar Lovaas was the first to provide evidence that the behavior or children with autism can be modified with therapy in the 1980s. The decades of contribution Dr. Lovaas contributed to the field of applied research earned him the moniker “Father of ABA (applied behavior analysis.)”

Known as the “Lovaas Method,” which later became “Early Intensive Behavior Intervention (EIBI),” Lovaas’ techniques involved highly individualized home treatment used to motivate learning and discourage undesirable behavior. Though some dispute his approach, he heavily influenced the field and gave parents across the world hope for their children.

4. LaVigna and Willis

The Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis, also known as IABA, was co-founded in 1981 by doctors Gary Lavigna and Tom Willis. The Institute provides “behavior management services, supported employment, supported living and supported educational services” to individuals with developmental disabilities in Southern California.

As IABA’s clinical director, Dr. Lavigna, consults with various organizations to teach nonaversive behavioral support strategies,  conducting & writing functional behavioral assessments and presents seminars on these topics across the world. He’s also published various articles and books, including Progress Without Punishment and The Periodic Service Review: A Total Quality Assurance System For Human Services and Education.

As associate director, Dr. Willis has also co-authored a breadth of books and papers on person-centered behavioral support for challenged individuals. He is an internationally recognized authority and lecturer on non-aversive techniques in autism care.

5. The MIND Institute

The UC Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurological Disorders) was founded in 1998 by parents of children with autism, including Chuck and Sarah Gardner and Rick Rollens.

The Institute is a consortium of experts in the field, bringing together scientists, educators, doctors and parents dedicated to researching the causes and treatments of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders like fragile X syndrome.

Co-founder Rick Rollens is an American lobbyist and autism advocate for organizations like Autism Speaks and Applied Behavioral Consultants. The father of an autistic son himself, Rollens has assisted in raising over $70 million toward finding causes and treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

6. Autism Speaks

One of the most recognizable and authoritative resources on autism is Autism Speaks, which was founded by Suzanne and Bob Wright, grandparents of a child with autism, in 2005. The advocacy organization has since risen to prominence as the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.

Autism Speaks is a leader in this field due to the breadth of their contribution in regards to awareness, fundraising, science, and advocacy efforts. According to its founders, Autism Speaks has increased awareness by 50 percent among parents of young children, built global partnerships in 60 nations, and has begun a revolutionary new autism gene mapping project called MSSNG in partnership with Google.

The SAILS Group has been profoundly influenced by all of these pioneers and more.

After training and working with the aforementioned Doctors: Lovaas, LaVigna and Willis  for years, I founded The SAILS Group, an international agency devoted to the care of adults and children with developmental disabilities with specialization in Autism in 1996. Without the foundation provided me by the aforementioned and other autism pioneers, The SAILS Group would not have been able to serve individuals as successfully as it does today.

With the knowledge provided by these pioneering men and women, we and other providers have successfully improved the overall well being and quality of life for hundreds of autistic children and adults and their loved ones across this country and throughout the world.

Featured image: Pete Markham via Flickr

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