Ruth Sullivan got a Ph.D. in special education, speech pathology, and psychology from Ohio University in 1984, at the age of 60, giving her more clout with the people she lobbied. Her tenacious but sensitive advocacy style lasted until her retirement in 2007.

“Obviously, providing guidance to families throughout the country was spectacular,” said Stephen Edelson, executive director of the Autism Research Institute. “However, she was also one of the first to discuss medical comorbidities connected with autism, including as seizures, sleep disorders, and gastrointestinal issues. And she was among the first to emphasise the significance of providing services to adults with autism.”

Jimmie Beirne, CEO of the Autism Services Center (a job Dr. Sullivan held from 1979 to 2007), was hired 33 years ago to work part-time with Joseph on social skills development.

“The attitude that she tried so hard to teach in us was to consider as if this is our child receiving these services,” Dr. Beirne explained over the phone. “She’d explain that the difference between decent and exceptional services is in the details, and she had an eye for things, much like a good coach.”

Joseph now lives in an Autism Services Center-run group home and works at the Autism Training Center.

Dr. Sullivan is survived by her other sons, Larry, Richard, and Christopher; her other daughters, Eva Sullivan and Julie Sullivan, who is working on a book about her mother; her sisters, Geraldine Landry, Frances Buckingham, and Julie Miller; her brother, Charles; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Dr. Sullivan’s influence was global. She got messages from parents all around the world looking for answers for their children, and she toured extensively to speak about autism.

“She was invited to an autism conference in Argentina in the 1990s,” her daughter Julie stated over the phone. “At the time, Argentina was gripped by the ‘refrigerator mother’ phenomenon, and she gathered parents and told them they needed to form their own club. As a result, she is the godmother of an autism parent group in Argentina.”