Ruth Christ Sullivan, Ph.D., age 97, died in Huntington, W.Va., on Sept. 16, 2021. Ruth Sullivan was a parent, expert and pioneer in the field of autism who is recognized globally. She was an influential lobbyist and speaker who not only made autism far better known to the public, but improved conditions for people with autism worldwide. She co-founded the Autism Society of America in the 1960s and served as its first elected president. She lobbied for the inclusion of autism in the landmark 1975 IDEA law, which mandated that all American children receive a free public education, and she was the chief author of the law's autism-specific language. She founded and ran Autism Services Center in Huntington from 1979 to 2007, and she successfully lobbied for state funding for the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University. After raising seven children, she earned the nation's first autism Ph.D., from Ohio University, at age 60. By the time she retired at age 83, she had received dozens of awards and had been invited to speak around the world, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in Argentina, Kuwait, Ireland, Australia, Namibia and Mexico, among others.
She was a loving mother and a born leader whose unwavering focus and determination joined a keen interest in kindness and fairness, especially toward society's most vulnerable. The oldest of seven children, Ruth Marie Christ was born on April 20, 1924, to a rice-farming Cajun French-German family in Mowata, La. During World War II, she earned a Registered Nurse degree from Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1943, then joined the Army Nurse Corps, working at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. After the war, she moved back to live with her family in Lake Charles, La., and became a public health nurse. She later earned a B.S. in Public Health Nursing and in 1952 an M.A. in Public Health Administration, both from Columbia University Teachers' College, where she also met her future husband, William P. "Bill" Sullivan, a fellow graduate student and U.S. Navy veteran who later received his doctorate from Columbia. They married in December 1952 and in the next 11 years had seven children. Bill Sullivan was a professor of English at Marshall University until his retirement.
In 1962, they began to realize that their fifth child, Joseph, was not a normal little boy. In 1963, he was diagnosed with classical autism by a psychiatrist who told them the boy would "always be unusual." Ruth Sullivan began to research, network and organize. In 1965, she co-founded the National Society for Autistic Children, now known as the Autism Society of America. In Huntington, W.Va., where the family moved in 1968, she started an Information and Referral Service to answer the queries she was receiving from around the world. She won a $500,000 grant from the U.S. government to publish the first directory of autism programs in the nation. In 1979, she founded Autism Services Center (ASC), an agency in Huntington, W.Va., that eventually grew to provide services to thousands of people with autism and developmental disabilities in West Virginia. In 1984, she successfully lobbied the West Virginia legislature for funding to start the Autism Training Center at Marshall University. In 2002, she also founded NARPAA, a national association for residential providers of autism services.
In 1988, Sullivan was contacted by the producers of the movie "Rain Man." Actor Dustin Hoffman met with her and Joseph prior to and during filming, and for the role of Raymond he studied outtakes from a documentary about Joseph at age 24, "Portrait of an Autistic Young Man." Along with the other parents he consulted, Hoffman thanked "Joe Sullivan and his mother" when accepting the Oscar for the film in 1989, and she was listed in the final credit of the movie. "Rain Man" spurred many television appearances, with mother and son interviewed by Oprah, Larry King, Maria Shriver and CBS Morning News, among others, as well as a four-page article in People magazine. Sullivan often said the film did more to make autism known than all her years of work in the field.
Ruth was a longtime parishioner of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Huntington. 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. She was preceded in death by her husband, William P. Sullivan, Ph.D.; her father, Lawrence Christ, her mother, Ada Matt Christ, her brother, Robert Christ, her sister Jeannette "Dena" Nodier; her brothers-in-law Jerry Buckingham, Ferdinand "Fred" Nodier, Joseph Sullivan and John Sullivan; her sisters-in-law Jackie Singer Christ, Madeleine Verdiere Sullivan and Catherine Sullivan. She is survived by her children, Julie Sullivan (David Winn), Christopher Sullivan (Jerri Tribble), Eva Sullivan (Frank Conlon), Larry Sullivan, Joseph Sullivan, Lydia Sullivan and Richard Sullivan; her siblings, Charles "C.J." Christ, Geraldine Landry (Lester), Frances Buckingham, Julie Miller (Remy); and dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Services will be announced at a later date. Klingel-Carpenter Mortuary is assisting the family with arrangements. In lieu of flowers expressions of sympathy may be made to Autism Services Center in Huntington or the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University. Family Guestbook at Klingelcarpenter.com To plant a beautiful memorial tree in memory of Ruth Christ Sullivan, Ph.D., please visit our Tribute Store.
Published by Klingel-Carpenter Mortuary on Sep. 19, 202