Autism Speaks, the nonprofit advocacy and fundraising organization now widely familiar for its blue puzzle piece logo, was founded in 2005 by former General Electric vice chairman and NBC/Universal CEO Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne Wright. The organization, which has sponsored the “Light It Up Blue” awareness campaign every year since 2010, has largely succeeded in capturing public attention for people with autism and their families. On April 2, 2014, well-known landmarks and corporate buildings around the world “lit it up blue” to draw awareness to the needs of people with autism. Autism Speaks says that its efforts have increased awareness of the condition by nearly 50 percent, but it won’t stop until 100 percent of people throughout the world know about the needs, struggles, and triumphs of individuals and families affected by autism.
The autism spectrum encompasses several developmental conditions that interfere with the ability to communicate, form personal relationships, and understand social cues regarding appropriate behavior. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in every 68 American children is living on the autism spectrum, ten times the number diagnosed just 40 years ago. In the U.S., about one out of every 42 boys, and one in every 189 girls, receives a diagnosis of autism. A video produced by Autism Speaks quotes the total number of people with autism-related conditions at about 3 million in the U.S. and some 70 million worldwide. In the video, Suzanne Wright delivers a passionate plea on behalf of people with autism, saying that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore a condition that can limit the opportunities for so many children.
Furthermore, Autism Speaks estimates that about half a million teens will lose access to necessary services over the next decade as they age out of existing programs. Therefore, the organization has also become an advocate for job training and employment for adults with autism spectrum disorders.
Health care professionals who work with children and young people with autism spectrum disorders understand that the earlier the intervention, the greater the likelihood of an individual achieving his or her full potential. This was the focus that drove Bob and Suzanne Wright to found Autism Speaks. In 2004, while trying to help their grandson, who would shortly be diagnosed with autism, the couple became frustrated by the lack of resources available. By establishing Autism Speaks, they hoped to become a voice for the millions of young people with autism spectrum disorders, and for their families.
In 2012, Autism Speaks’ advocacy prompted three additional states to enact regulations reforming how the insurance industry covers people with autism. The group’s partnership with the Ad Council has resulted in public service announcements urging parents and physicians to pursue early detection and intervention. The organization has begun a massive effort to facilitate whole-genome screening for thousands of people in families touched by autism. Its national and local chapters continue to raise funds for research through hosting gala events, athletic walks and runs, and musical concerts. Among the many resources available on its website are toolkits that provide practical information for families and links to further resources.