The Autism Society is among the oldest and most widely known organizations in the United States. In 1965, researchers Dr. Bernard Rimland and Dr. Ruth Sullivan joined together with other parents of children with autism spectrum disorders to form the group, dedicated to boosting public awareness of the condition, providing educational and informational resources, and advocating for services and research.
Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, the Autism Society leads a nationwide network of some 150 local affiliates, and partners with a number of like-minded organizations and advocacy groups such as Easter Seals and the Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs. The society’s website is among the most frequently visited on the subject in the world, and it publishes a regular national newsletter, Autism Advocate.
Dr. Bernard Rimland diagnosed his then-two-year-old son with autism in 1958, using information he discovered in a college text. He declared “war” on the developmental condition that impedes the formation of communication skills and social relationships, and went on to publish a watershed book in the field.
Rimland’s Infantile Autism appeared in 1964, arguing that autism had biological causes. Until that time, many researchers had attributed the condition to a lack of maternal nurturing. Rimland went on to found the Autism Research Institute in the late 1960s. Rimland’s son, Mark, was one of the real-life models for the title character in the 1988 now-classic film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman.
Dr. Ruth Sullivan, another pioneer in the field of autism and advocacy, is the mother of a son, Joseph, who was diagnosed with the condition at age three. At that time a public health nurse who had also had a career in military health care, Sullivan began to research available options for help, but found none. She and other parents urged the State of New York to develop education programs to address the needs of children with autism spectrum disorders. After reading Rimland’s book, Sullivan got in touch with him. An initial meeting with other parents and medical professionals led the two to spearhead the formation of the Autism Society. Sullivan began to lead advocacy efforts in West Virginia, after her family moved there to take advantage of educational programs for her son. She was among the first to lobby the United States Congress on behalf of people with autism, and she played a key role in the passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1975.
Figures from a 2007 survey published in the magazine Pediatrics stated that about one percent of all children in the United States have a disorder that falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. Yet many children do not receive the assistance they need, at serious cost to their own opportunities. With early detection and therapy, the expenses associated with long-term care for people with autism spectrum disorders can be lessened by about two-thirds.
The Autism Society’s successes in the legislative field are perhaps most strikingly illustrated by its efforts that led to the passage of the 2006 landmark Combating Autism Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the act provides for increased public funding for autism awareness campaigns, research, and education. It additionally established an informational program, directed toward health care providers and designed to step up the rate of early diagnosis and appropriate treatment.