Anyone meeting Joseph today would probably think he is an attractive, middle-aged man with a shy smile and perhaps some slightly odd behaviors. They might be surprised to learn that this man’s life has been anything but ordinary.
Joseph was born in Lake Charles, LA., on April 5, 1960, the fifth of seven children of Ruth Christ Sullivan and William P. Sullivan. Joseph was a beautiful baby and started speaking at an early age, but by 18 months he was showing signs of withdrawal and had almost stopped talking. Family photos from that time show Joseph either struggling to escape from someone’s lap or playing alone on the periphery of family activities. At two, he could sing snatches of “The Star Spangled Banner” and by age four he could draw accurate maps of all 50 states from memory.
About that time, Joseph was diagnosed with a condition called early infantile autism, a diagnosis that was confirmed a year later by a second round of testing that took place after the Sullivans moved to their new home in upstate New York. In those days, U.S. public schools accepted the physically handicapped but rarely children with autism. Luckily, the local school system was staffed by knowledgeable and caring individuals who were willing to work with Joseph and help ease him into the classroom setting.
Barnett Addis, Ph.D., on the faculty of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, made two documentaries about Joseph. The first, Infantile Autism: The Invisible Wall, was done when Joseph was a boy of 7. Addis returned with his film crew 18 years later to tape Portrait of an Autistic Young Man, which won a number of awards and was later aired on many PBS stations in the United States, as well as in Europe.
In 1968, William Sullivan accepted a position as professor of English at Marshall University, and the family moved to Huntington, WV. One of the deciding factors in that move was the astonishing fact that the school system in Huntington had an existing appropriate educational program specifically designed for children with autism, possibly one of the first, if not the only one, in the nation.
Ruth Sullivan’s determined efforts to find the necessary services for her son and others like him eventually led her to establish Autism Services Center (ASC) in 1979.
Although Joseph struggled in some areas of his life, he was also blessed with a number of inexplicable gifts. He was able to perform complex math problems in his head faster than they could be done on a calculator and he had perfect musical pitch. Joseph could also name the day of the week of any date -- past, present or future -- and when someone would mention an event that happened in his past, he could state the exact day and date on which it occurred.
While those attributes are quite amazing, Joseph’s compulsive behaviors, bizarre rituals and strange utterances isolated him socially, and although everyone in high school knew him, he had few friends. However, when Joseph received his diploma and graduated from Huntington High School in 1981, he received a standing ovation from the entire class.
Joseph’s parents now focused on what would happen to Joseph after graduation. They challenged conventional wisdom as well as the social service systems and created a place for Joseph in a work environment and in the community itself. They battled the system and assembled a team of dedicated and like-minded people to help train Joseph on how to live in society.
In 1988, the movie Rain Man was released, starring Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, an adult man with autism. Joseph’s mother was hired as a consultant for the movie, and Joseph was one of three autistic savant role models intensively studied by Hoffman in preparation for his role. He also studied the UCLA documentary about Joseph, Portrait of an Autistic Young Man, and hours of its outtakes. Joseph was 28 when he was invited to meet Dustin Hoffman on location during filming in Cincinnati in 1988. Subsequently, this movie won four Oscars and, more than any other single event, brought autism out of the medical literature and into the mainstream consciousness. Autism was now a household word.
Barry Levinson, the director of Rain Man, along with producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, generously agreed to have a premiere of the movie in Huntington as a benefit for Autism Services Center. They came to Huntington along with Dustin Hoffman to attend the event. The proceeds were used as a down payment on the first house owned by ASC, which had previously only leased or rented property. It was named Pelican House because the pelican is the state emblem of Louisiana, the state in which Joseph was born, and because the pelican is an ancient symbol of nurturing. Joseph still lives in that house today, along with two other men with developmental disabilities.
There was a heightened interest in autism after the release of Rain Man, and Disney’s medical advisory board decided to update the medical feature of the multi-media presentation titled “Frontiers of Medicine” in the Wonders of Life pavilion at Disney World in Florida. Because of his connection to the movie, Rain Man, a story on Joseph Sullivan began showing at Disney’s EPCOT Center on July 3, 1993. Now the facts on autism would be presented to more than one million people a year.
After the release of Rain Man, Ruth Sullivan and Joseph were invited to appear on several TV talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King. This widespread exposure highlighting Joseph’s personal story helped shed more light on the little-known disorder and increased awareness among the general public.
Joseph still struggles today with his obsessive compulsive tendencies, but he also enjoys many interests and continues to live a relatively normal existence. He loves music, action movies, photography, and drawing very detailed aerial views of his home and other structures. He also enjoys taking walks, bike riding, reading dictionaries and encyclopedias and emailing family and friends. Sundays are spent with his mother – going to church and sharing Sunday dinner.
Joseph’s attention to detail earned him a part-time job at a local business where he does data entry and helps prepare informational packets.
This quiet, unassuming man has had quite a remarkable journey. When you contemplate the difference one life can make in the overall scheme of things, you might consider, “If Joseph had not been born with his unique and challenging behaviors…..”
- Would his mother have been drawn to fight for the rights and services for the special needs community?
- Would an agency like Autism Services Center ever have been founded to provide those special services?
- What would have happened to the hundreds of clients presently receiving services through ASC? Would they have been able to find those services elsewhere?
- Would the individuals residing in ASC homes been able to find other adequate and appropriate living arrangements? And finally,
- Would the hundreds of staff working at ASC been able to find other employment?
All of this came about because of a mother’s desire to help and provide for her child’s needs. If Joseph was the pebble dropped into the pond, the resulting ripples continue to grow even today.