Ruth Christ Sullivan knew that she was not a refrigerator mother. She knew that she had treated her autistic son Joe just the same way she had treated her four other children. What's more, she knew that Joe was smart and that he needed to attend school. She contacted Bernard Rimland after reading his 1964 book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implication for a Neural Theory of Behavior, and they were both among the co-founders of the Autism Society of America in 1965.
Sullivan had to move to Huntington, West Virginia, in order to find a school that would take Joe. She is one of the reasons public schools in the United States cannot refuse students because of their disabilities:
Ruth Sullivan was one of the chief lobbyists for Public Law 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), which guaranteed a public education to all children in the United States. Before the passage of the law, individual school districts in most states were allowed to choose whether they were willing to educate a child with disabilities.
She also helped to introduce Temple Grandin to the world:
I first met Temple in the mid-1980s ...[at the] annual [ASA] conference.... Standing on the periphery of the group was a tall young woman who was obviously interested in the discussions. She seemed shy and pleasant, but mostly she just listened.... I learned her name was Temple Grandin... It wasn't until later in the week that I realized she was someone with autism....I approached her and asked if she'd be willing to speak at the next year's [ASA] conference. She agreed...The next year... Temple first addressed an [ASA] audience.... people were standing at least three deep....The audience couldn't get enough of her. Here, for the first time, was someone who could tell us from her own experience what it was like to be extremely sound sensitive ("like being tied to the rail and the train's coming")... She was asked many questions: "Why does my son do so much spinning?" "Why does he hold his hands to his ears? "Why doesn't he look at me?" She spoke from her own experience, and her insight was impressive. There were tears in more than one set of eyes that day.... Temple quickly became a much sought-after speaker in the autism community.
Ruth Sullivan was an advisor on the film Rain Main and her son Joe was one of the models for Dustin Hoffman's character in the film.
You'd think Leo Kanner would be the figure in autism history I'd have the most mixed feelings about, wouldn't you? He was the first doctor to diagnose someone with autism, but he was also the author of the refrigerator mother theory, which has been remarkably destructive. And then he helped to strike one of the most important blows against that theory when he wrote the foreword for Bernard Rimland's 1964 book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior.
But Rimland's own role in the very odd history of autism is even more complex than Kanner's.
He was autism's first parent researcher, shifting his focus after his son Mark was born. By 1964, Kanner agreed with Rimland that autism had a neurological cause, and his endorsement gave Rimland's book authority.
Rimland continued his advocacy for autistic people and their families until his death in 2006. He co-founded the Autism Society of America in 1965. He was an early and powerful advocate for Applied Behavior Analysis and against Facilitated Communication.
He was the primary technical advisor on the film Rain Man.
Unfortunately, Rimland went too far with the idea of a biological cause for autism, and spread wrong ideas that are still doing harm today. He started the Autism Research Institute in 1967. He popularized the idea that autistic children could be "recovered" through diet and vitamins. He advocated for chelation.
And many, many people have been endangered by his belief that autism is caused by mercury in vaccines.