OBITUARY: ENRICO MICHELI, Italian autism pioneer

By Adam Feinstein

From Volume 4 Number 12

ONE OF Italy’s leading autism experts, Enrico Micheli, has died in a tragic mountaineering accident at the age of 58, leaving friends, family and colleagues stunned with shock. He was killed on July 3, 2008.
    Micheli, who had been working with autistic individuals since 1970, was one of the first people in Italy to insist that autism was organic in aetiology and to introduce TEACCH into Italy.
    From 1983 to 2000, he was based at the San Paolo-Università in Milan, where his approach was primarily cognitive-behavioural.
    He was a founder of the Committee for Correct Information on Autism and he took part with parents in Lombardy in the movement for the regional autism project. He was also on the board of the Osservatorio Regionale Autismo (Regional Autism Observatory).
    Together with his colleagues in Milan, and with his wife,  Cesarina Xaiz, from whom he was inseparable, Micheli  drew up a model of assessment and intervention for individuals with special needs, which was presented to Division TEACCH in North Carolina in 1998.
    Among his books was Gioco e interazione sociale nell’autismo (Play and Social Interaction in Autism), which introduced many ideas to help the development of interaction in autistic children.
    His last work, editorially speaking, was Verso l'autonomia (Towards Autonomy),  a kind of manual aimed at children, adolescents and adults with disabilities which prevent them from actively understanding the world and the rules which govern it - especially individuals with autism and mental retardation.
    For Micheli, the role of families was crucial. He believed they must play a concrete and active role in the education of their children.
    Moreover, Micheli was a great believer in the role of the school, which he felt could represent a place of learning and development, provided that the teachers were properly trained.
         A charismatic and indefatigable figure, Micheli saw autism as a challenge which drove him all over the world in search of anything that might prove useful to Italian children.
       A huge debt is owed to Micheli who brought  a behavioural model back from the United States to Italy, where for decades there was tremendous ignorance about autism. His work led to a debate about the anachronistic psychodynamic training which was still the norm in Italy at that time - and which blamed the parents for their child’s autism - and many of his colleagues followed him down the correct path.
    Micheli’s life was characterised by his struggle against a health system which was not always open to his innovations. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he never once lost hope that he could knock down the wall of preconceptions behind which his adored autistic children were living.
    Micheli  declared in an interview in 2005: “Sincerely, I believe that we have taken important steps forward, especially in terms of living conditions and in the ability ... to deal with the problems facing families - parents and siblings alike. Today, parents discover their child’s problems earlier, they find out that he or she has developmental difficulties on the autistic spectrum earlier and so they know what to do to help the child. And they also discover earlier that there’s a chance they won’t  be alone with their problems. And that’s no small thing.”
    He always emphasised the importance of his encounter with English and American writings on autism. “I’ve had the great good luck to begin working directly with the children and to study psychology and psychiatry while I was working with them. My encounter with English and American literature on autism, and with the psychology of behaviour and development,  which I learned directly from teachers like Elizabeth Newson, Eric Schopler and Gerry Patterson ... all this changed the way of thinking about autism, developmental disorders and child psychiatry in our country.
    “What I learned I put into books, articles and above all in the training of colleagues, teachers, parents and work with hundreds of children and families. I am proud of my ability to build my knowledge of a child not only on tests or conversations but also on the interchange with dads and mums, and to be able to explain the nature of the child’s difficulties and the possibilities of improvement in a way that the parents can understand.
    “Knowledge is the first step on the path to health and well-being.”

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