When Dr. Bob Koegel, Director of the Koegel Autism Center, was in college, he had two major goals about what he hoped to do with his life. “I didn’t want to work with the severely disabled,” he says, “And I didn’t want to work with the children.” The irony isn’t lost on him that he’s now one of the premier researchers in the world in the field of autism, spending every day doing both of those things. He didn’t think he was headed into the field of psychology as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I was a math and physics major to begin with but it didn’t look like the work that math and physics professors did matched with my goals of working with people,” he recalls. “It turned out that I actually completed an entire psychology major with electives, so I switched.”
His interest in autism developed slowly, too, although Dr. Ivar Lovaas, his advisor when he earned his Ph.D. at UCLA, was a huge factor. “He was making big breakthroughs and I got caught up in that,” he explains, “and as I got attached to families and children I got drawn into it.” The advances continued when Koegel took his first job after finishing his doctorate in 1971. He remembers, “Here at UCSB we made some significant advances and I could really see hope. It led me on my lifelong pursuit.”
After 35 years at UCSB, Koegel can look back and enumerate four major steps since the start of his work that revolutionized the way people think about autism. First, his team (which currently numbers 60, and for the past 25 years has included his wife, Director of Clinical Services Dr. Lynn Koegel, with whom he is pictured at right) developed an educational model so that children with autism could finally attend schools. Second, the team developed a home living model that helped bring an end to hospitalizing autism patients. “We set up a big lab at Camarillo State Hospital in the early days,” he says, “and our goal was to get rid of it.” It took many years, but the notorious hospital was finally shut down in 1997. He exults, “Instead of being locked down in wards – children were tied down and given electroshock – they now live with their families and go to school.”
The last two breakthroughs are the major ways people work with autism patients today. Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT) – recognized by the National Academy of Science as one of the primary treatments for autism – is a family-centered approach that may be implemented throughout the day and across natural environments such as in the home, at school, or in the community. Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is the primary treatment delivery that’s non-aversive. Considering these accomplishments Koegel surmises, “Good old science did the trick. These four breakthroughs changed the world in a way I was hoping I could.”
Not that Koegel feels his job is over. “I think the disorder is potentially curable in the relatively near future,” he asserts, “but that’s something the entire professional world disagrees with me about.” He remains undeterred. “While autism is an organic disorder, the cure is likely to come about through an educational intervention that retrains the nervous system – like what happens with stroke victims – rather than a pill.” He admits, “We pretty much know what studies need to be done and with more funding they could be done more rapidly as more people could be working on them.”
The expanded clinic space in the new GGSE building will also help. “More functional space designed specifically with our needs in mind will make this among the best clinics in the country,” he boasts, but is equally pleased about “the additional excitement of seeing campus putting resources into education – that helps to attract other people who want to help.” It’s hard to imagine people aren’t lining up to help Koegel and his clinic as they do all they can to end autism.