TAMPA — Her twins were 18 months old when Leslie Ciper knew something was wrong. Bette was learning new words every day; Eric was forgetting words.
After a while, the boy stopped talking altogether.
Through a friend in her church choir, Ciper heard about Dr. Philip Drash. He said the word others had only hinted at: autism.
Dr. Drash, a psychologist who used behavioral techniques to treat children with developmental disabilities, died April 15, of leukemia. He was 79.
"Phil was one of the early behaviorists who recognized the importance of communications skills for young persons with autism, and helping young children develop their ability to communicate," said psychologist Robert Friedman, 66, of the University of South Florida.
Dr. Drash learned behavioral techniques in an unusual setting. As a doctoral student in the late 1950s at Texas Tech University, he worked with a team of behavioral psychologists and graduate students helping NASA train chimpanzees go into space.
The efforts paid off during a 16-minute flight Jan. 31, 1961, when a chimp named Ham pressed a lever whenever a blue light came on inside the capsule. America's first astronaut, Alan Shepard, launched into space May 5, 1961.
Dr. Drash went on to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, then the University of South Florida. In 1974, he became the school's first chairman of the department of child and family services. He also directed the Florida Mental Health Institute at USF, where he worked with children with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
In 1991, he left USF to found the Autism Early Intervention and Prevention Center on Busch Boulevard. He often spoke and wrote about the need for early diagnosis and treatment for autism, a neurological condition often mistaken for hearing loss or psychiatric illness.
Eric Ciper underwent hearing tests and six months of speech therapy before his mother heard about Dr. Drash from a friend who had two autistic children.
"It was like the word on the street," she said. "If you wanted your kid to talk, he's the man you want to see."
With flash cards and pictures, the psychologist taught Eric to vocalize, rewarding him with food and toys.
Now 8 and in the third grade at Clark Elementary School, Eric speaks today, though he struggles to choose the right words.
"He would have no speech at all if it weren't for Phil," his mother said.
She will sing a solo at his funeral service Friday: Amazing Grace.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.