Shirley Ellen Woodward, who worked for decades at Long Island institutions to improve the lives of children with autism and developmental disabilities, died of cancer at her Huntington Bay home Saturday. She was 68.

A native of Winnipeg, Canada, Woodward made her mark on Long Island at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington, where she served for 15 years, and the Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Stony Brook University, from which she retired in October 2011 after 10 years.

A professional social worker and educator, Woodward championed early diagnosis and treatment of developmental disabilities while incorporating scientific breakthroughs in the field into both university curricula and service programs, her family said. She also helped write the autism diagnosis and treatment guidelines for New York State and to install the Applied Behavioral Analysis Certification program at Stony Brook, her family said.

Her skill at work translated into pragmatism in her parenting, said her husband of 49 years, John Neff Woodward.

"Ellen knew instinctively how to be a mother," he said, recalling the birth of their daughter, Amanda Lea, now of Chicago, in 1964 when Shirley Ellen Woodward was just 18. "And our daughter thrived."

Woodward was born in January 1946 in Winnipeg and spent much of her childhood in western Canada and Bogota, Colombia, where her father worked for an oil company.

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She graduated from Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts in 1963, and attended Syracuse, where she met her husband.

The young couple settled in East Northport, where they also raised a son -- John Matthew, now of Greenlawn, born in 1968. Woodward earned bachelor of fine arts and master of social work degrees from Stony Brook University, and a doctorate in education from Hofstra University. The family later moved to Huntington Bay.

She began her professional career as a social worker at the Association for Children With Down Syndrome in Plainview and worked there for about five years, her husband said.

She joined Developmental Disabilities Institute, where she served as director of early childhood services, and developed the Starting Early program, which helped document the benefits of early intervention.

She later served as director of community services and education at Stony Brook's Cody Center, where she worked to strengthen the institution as an autism resource center for training and education, clinical treatment, community outreach and research.

During her tenure, the center served more than a thousand families each year, her family said. She retired in 2011.

"She lived an ordinary life and the things she did, she did in extraordinary ways," John Woodward said.

Besides her husband and children, Shirley Ellen Woodward is survived by a sister, Janet Fox Tomlinson of Lewisville, N.C.; a brother, James Blake Matthews of Faversham, Kent, England; and four granddaughters.

A memorial service will be held Feb. 6 at 11 a.m. at Greenlawn Presbyterian Church in Greenlawn.