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Colleagues and community mourn sudden death of Tristram Smith, autism research pioneer

Aug 10, 2018

Credit University of Rochester Medical Center

A local autism researcher is being remembered as a pioneer in the field whose work significantly changed the approach to autism spectrum disorder.

Tristram Smith died of a heart attack on Monday. He was 57.

“His brain was a national treasure,” said Susan Hyman, M.D., chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at URMC. “It was because of his work that families could have the hope that their children would gain skills. It really has changed how we in Rochester and nationally treat young children with autism."

Smith's work in the early 1990s shifted the focus of the treatment approach to autism from psychotherapy to behavioral intervention.

"He just knew that there were ways to connect with people with autism and he felt it was up to him to uncover those things for the rest of us,” said Rachel Rosner, whose 20 year old son and 16 year old daughter are on the autism spectrum.  She met Smith when he arrived in town  to work at the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2000. Her son participated in some of his research.  

Rosner recalls that when an individual was diagnosed with autism in the 1970s and even as recently as the 1980s, medical professionals often recommended that they be institutionalized.

“No one had the perspective that a person with autism could learn and grow and improve their quality of life and live in the community with other people,” she said. “The research (Smith) did really proved that this is actually not so.  It was really the sea change for what you see today: behavior-based, family-centered interventions.”

When Smith died unexpectedly and suddenly this week, he was on sabbatical.

“He was preparing the field for the next step of understanding the wonderful neuroscience that's happening at U of R and matching treatment to what was going on in the brain," Dr. Hyman said.

"This is the next step in treatment and Tris really was stopped in mid-air before taking that next step.  It's our job as autism researchers to really complete this work for him."

Tristram Smith is survived by his wife, Jennifer Katz and his children, Jonah Smith and Madeleine Katz.