Ruth Christ Sullivan, Autism Pioneer, Passes Away at Age 97

October 10, 2021

Adored Trailblazer Co-founded the Autism Society of America and Served as First President 

The autism community suffered a great loss when Ruth Christ Sullivan, Ph.D. died last month at age 97. Ruth Sullivan was a globally recognized autism pioneer, expert, and lobbyist who spent decades raising awareness of the disorder. Her many accomplishments include co-founding the Autism Society of America (ASA) in the 1960s with Bernard Rimland and Ole Ivar Lovaas. She went on to serve as the organization’s first elected president. As a lobbyist, Ms. Sullivan pushed for the inclusion of autism into the landmark 1975 IDEA law. She served as the lead author of the law’s autism-specific language. In 1979, Ms. Sullivan founded the Autism Services Center which would eventually grow to provide services to thousands of people with autism in West Virginia. Always playing the role of a trailblazer, she earned the nation’s first autism Ph.D., from Ohio University, at age 60. She had seven children in 11 years with her husband, William Sullivan, an English professor at Marshall University. In 1962, the couple began to realize that their fifth child, Joseph, was not developing typically. He would be diagnosed with autism in 1963. It was from this point forward that Ms. Sullivan set out to make the world a better place for individuals with autism. In 1988, she was contacted by the producers of Rain Man. During the following months, Dustin Hoffman would go on to meet with Ms. Sullivan and Joseph prior to and during the filming of the movie. The actor used Joseph as an inspiration for his character, Raymond, in the film. When Hoffman accepted the Best Actor Oscar for Rain Man in 1989, he thanked, “Joe Sullivan and his mother” during his acceptance speech. Ruth Sullivan was listed in the final credits of the film. Throughout her life, Ms. Sullivan’s motto and aim was to “make every place better because she had been there.” It’s easy to recognize that Ruth Sullivan hit that goal. She will be remembered as an early autism advocate whose influence will last for generations.

Ruth Christ Sullivan Obituary

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