HUNTINGTON — A local pioneer in autism diagnosis and treatment is being mourned and remembered for the impact she had on autism services and quality of life for people with autism.
Ruth Christ Sullivan, founder of Autism Services Center (ASC), died Thursday afternoon at the age of 97, according to her obituary.
“Although our hearts are heavy today, we honor and celebrate Dr. Sullivan for the many, many lives she touched and the services she created for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. She was an inspiration to so many parents seeking information, direction and hope for their child identified with autism,” ASC’s president and CEO Jimmie Beirne said in a tribute to Sullivan on the organization’s Facebook page.
Beirne said in a telephone interview Friday that Sullivan was known as a pioneer and leader in the autism community.
“She was a born leader, mover and shaker. She was always articulate and elegant,” he said.
Beirne says anyone who knew or worked with Sullivan would tell you how driven and tenacious she was when she had her mind set on something.
“When her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, few services existed at the time,” he said. “She soon began organizing parents of children with autism on a local, state and national level.”
Sullivan became the first president of the Autism Society of America in 1969. She was the first lobbyist for autism issues at the U.S. Congress. She served as the editor for the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities for nine years.
She consulted on autism in over 10 countries, wrote over 65 articles on autism, and was a consultant for the movie “Rain Man.”
Beirne said in May 1979, ASC became incorporated.
“Dr. Sullivan ran an information and referral hotline for autism, and she provided advocacy services,” he said. “Her office was in her dining room of her house, and her desk was the dining room table. Our services have grown exponentially since then. In May 2019, ASC celebrated a significant milestone — our 40-year anniversary. We now have over 300 employees providing services in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.”
During the 40-year anniversary ceremony, a portrait of Sullivan painted by local artist Sassa Wilkes was unveiled, and when the curtain came down, the crowd collectively expressed how much it captured her spirit. The reference photo was chosen by her son, Richard Sullivan, who wanted the portrait to portray her in action as it depicts her speaking at a podium.
“Well, I did talk a lot, I guess,” Ruth Sullivan said when she saw the painting, and the crowd erupted in laughter.
And it all started with Sullivan’s son, Joseph.
“If God had to give me a handicapped child, it could not have been more wonderful and amazing than Joseph Sullivan,” Ruth Sullivan said.
Marc Ellison, executive director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, said he met Ruth Sullivan when he was 19 years old, in 1985.
“I applied to work at her agency to work with her son Joseph,” Ellison said. “I worked there for 18 years before coming to Marshall.”
Ellison said back in 1985, he knew nothing about autism, but that all changed after he met Ruth Sullivan.
“I was fascinated by how disciplined and passionate she was, and I hoped I could spend my entire life doing what she was doing,” he said. “I loved her as a person and as a professional. She was the most influential person in my career. I learned so many things from her, including leadership. She also expected us to carry out our duties with a sense of urgency. I think as the mother of a son with autism and a provider of autism services, she really understood the urgency of the service need. She taught me to be respectful and thoughtful of that urgency.”
Beirne said the drive Sullivan demonstrated daily was extraordinary.
“Many people will tell you that it was hard to tell Ruth Sullivan no,” he said. “When she had a vision, she was tenacious and determined. I can tell you she was very driven. Once she set her sights on something, she was tenacious in making her vision a reality.”
Beirne said Sullivan was always so interested in life.
“I kind of wonder if she ever got bored. She always found everything interesting,” he said. “If we were sitting in an airport waiting on our plane, she’s getting to know all the folks around her. She would get to know their family, their occupation, their life philosophy. She was interested in people and their lives. And she took the time to get to know people. You never knew what you would be talking about with Ruth on any given day. You could be talking about history, geography, politics, religion or a number of other topics. We had some of the best conversations — conversations that made you think. Sometimes it was hard just to keep up with her.”
Beirne said it was amazing to go to national conferences with her as she was recognized globally for her work.
“She was a star. Everybody wanted to meet her and shake her hand,” he said. “She was truly a source of inspiration and hope for so many families.”
Her son Richard Sullivan said his mother instilled in her children to make things better whenever they could.
“Independent of autism, she taught her children that all people should be treated with dignity and respect,” he said. “She was an advocate for all.”
Her daughter, Lydia Sullivan, said her mother was loving, a good friend and a great cook.
“She loved to cook Cajun food, and made a good gumbo,” she said.
She said her mom was a system-changer.
“She didn’t just try to fix things — she solved the issue systematically and taught us that we all could do that, too,” Lydia Sullivan said.
Richard Sullivan said his mother was from a large family.
“She was the oldest of seven children, raised on a rice farm in Louisiana,” he said. “At age 17, she was a nurse in the Army during World War II. She cared for soldiers at Fort Sam Houston. She was proud of her military service and veteran status.”
Ruth Sullivan met her husband, the late William P. Sullivan, at Columbia University. He later became an English professor at Marshall University.
“I think they settled in West Virginia because the state offered Joseph the opportunity of being taken care of in a public school system,” Richard Sullivan said. “This was something she advocated for.”
Richard Sullivan said his mother was deep into historic preservation, especially in the Guyandotte area of Huntington. She started the Guyandotte Association for Improvement and Preservation.
“She tried to get the East End Bridge located somewhere else to preserve history buildings, and then after it was built she admired it for its architectural design,” he said.
Ruth Sullivan was a committed Catholic and attended St. Joseph Catholic Church in Huntington.
“As a longtime parishioner of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Huntington, she was always nourished by her faith in God,” her obituary reads. “Throughout her life, she was committed to ‘making every place better because you have been there.’ Her gift was instilling this commitment in others through her own example.”