Ruth Christ Sullivan, a powerful advocate for children with autism and a lead author of autism-specific language in breakthrough legislation during the 1970s, died on September 16 in a senior living center in Huntington, West Virginia, The Washington Post reports. She was 97.
She once described her persistent approach to changing laws and educational practices, “Nothing can substitute for hard work. [Success meant] reading reports, budgets, studies, plans, laws, regulations, briefs, court decisions, journals, newsletters [and] going, going, and going to meetings … [and] seemingly unending hours on the phone, night and day. And writing letters—to persuade, dissuade, encourage, cajole.”
And so she did in moving the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the law later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She reportedly couldn’t afford a plane ticket from her home in Huntington to Washington, DC. So she lingered in the airport with her baggage, asking passing pilots if she could hitch a ride until one said yes. “My mother just had a way of talking people into things,” her daughter was quoted as saying.
She was a co-founder of the Autism Society, and the IDEA law, which originally mandated that public schools accept public funds to provide equal access to students with disabilities, was updated in 1990 to formally include children with autism. The society reported that Dr Sullivan was the “chief author of autism-specific language in that law.”
“I was fascinated by how disciplined and passionate she was, and I hoped I could spend my entire life doing what she was doing,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail quoted Marc Ellison, executive director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, as saying about Dr Sullivan. “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.”