Giving a Voice to Autism

Personal passion: Bob Wright

Autism Speaks was launched in February 2005 by Bob Wright, chair and CEO of NBC Universal and vice chair and chief exec of GE, and wife Suzanne to help find a cure for autism and raise public awareness.

The Wrights joined forces with the national Alliance for Autism Research, creating the largest single organization devoted to autism in the nation.

“We started the foundation because 2½ years ago we had the terrible diagnosis that our grandson was autistic,” says Suzanne Wright. “He has regressive autism. He had had about 800 words and was potty trained and he lost everything. We lost him in a way that we had him. By the time he was 2½ they had nowhere to send us. As Bob always likes to say, it was ‘good-bye and good luck.’

“Christian is now 4½. He has gastro GI problems, and it has been a nightmare trying to get this little guy treated. He lies on the floor, punches his stomach. He’s in pain. He screams, and basically the pediatrician says, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him.’ He can’t tell us what’s wrong with him.

“We were shocked and horrified to find out that we were in the middle of an epidemic in this country and no one was talking about it.

“Now, with our resources, how isolated and alone and terrified we felt, I couldn’t imagine how all of these families felt.”

“School systems, most public school systems in many, many states just don’t want to recognize this problem,” says Bob Wright. “They just kind of shuffle these children off into sort of Special Ed, or worse yet, they put them in regular classes.

“Bernie Markus (co-founder of Home Depot) called me and he was really the most instrumental. He said, ‘Bob, I’ve been working in this area for 10 years and I can’t believe how frustrating it is. I’ve put a lot of money into the research and the treatment and caring for these children, but we have no awareness. I’d be willing to work with you if you really help drive the awareness of what the problem is.’

“We spent a lot of time discussing how we could do that or what it would take. And basically, he made a pledge to me that he would put up $25 million over five years in order to fund building an awareness program and also dealing with treatments and dealing with research.

“To us, this is really not philanthropy. It’s a cause that we were driven into that we can hopefully bring some real help to. I look at this as a work problem. I’m going about this just like it’s business. We have to make contact with people. We have to help people. At the same time, we have to bring new people in and find out why people are so disconnected from the government services that they are entitled to.”