Mother Courage:
How Ruth Sullivan Changed the World for Autistic Children

Ruth Sullivan and her son Joe.
Ruth Sullivan and her son Joe.

August / September 2016By Tom Deignan, Contributor

There’s no way for John Donvan to put it gently when it comes to Ruth Sullivan, an Irish Catholic mother of seven and pioneering woman in the world of autism.

“She just thought it was all bullshit,” says Donvan with a laugh, though he adds Sullivan herself would never use such language.

It was the 1950s when Sullivan, and her husband, began raising their family.

Sullivan plays a key role in Donvan’s new book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, co-written with Caren Zucker.

“Ruth and her husband were full participants in the baby boom, as well as being Irish Catholics. The oldest of eight children herself, she was now the mother of seven,” Donvan and Zucker write.

At the age of two, Ruth’s son Joe – born in 1960 – started to change.

He “had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally,” In a Different Key notes. At the same time, “he was extravagantly ahead of schedule in other areas of development.”

Several doctors diagnosed young Joe Sullivan with autism.

“He will always be a little odd,” one doctor told Ruth. Then she read some research that reflected the predominant theories of the day – that Ruth herself was to blame for Joe’s autism.

“Ruth had one of those big Irish Catholic families,” Donvan says.

“But only one of her kids had autism. That was the way she convinced herself she wasn’t causing it. Because the six other children didn’t have it.”

Sullivan was already a woman of impressive accomplishment. She had served as a nurse in the U.S. Army and earned a master’s degree in Public Health.

By 1965, Sullivan – “a natural organizer” – decided it was time to bring together many of the parent-activists working to raise not only autistic children but awareness about the latest developments in the field. In November of that year, Sullivan helped create the National Society for Autistic Children, which was founded during a meeting in Teaneck, New Jersey. (The group is now known as the Autism Society of America.)

“They had no money. They had no internet. [Ruth helped] run the thing out of her house,” Donvan says. “It really did begin to change the world for people.”

In 1968, Sullivan became president of the National Society for Autistic Children. Two decades later, Sullivan served as a consultant on the groundbreaking Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man, setting up meetings between Hoffman, director Barry Levinson, and autistic children who informed the film’s complex portrait of Raymond Babbitt, the autistic character who could not be manipulated by his charming brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise).

Autism was now a household world.  Ruth Sullivan appeared on Larry King and Oprah, while Joseph was the subject of several widely celebrated documentaries, including Infantile Autism: The Invisible Wall and Portrait of an Autistic Young Man.

The Autism Society of America celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and Sullivan, now in her 90s, is still active in the community.

All because she simply wouldn’t accept the bullshit. ♦

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