Autism speaks and Suzanne and Bob Wright ensure the world listens

Suzanne and Bob Wright with their grandson, Christian.

Suzanne and Bob Wright remember exactly how they felt when they learned in March 2004 that their oldest grandson, Christian, had been diagnosed with autism – a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social and verbal skills as well as restricted and repetitive behavior that manifests itself by the time the child is 3. Ten years later, the anguish in the couple’s voices is still fresh.

“It was extremely difficult, and the deterioration was so fast,” Bob recalls. “This was a case of significant regression. It was extremely devastating.”

“It was shocking,” Suzanne adds. “And what made it particularly devastating was that here we were – Bob was head of NBC – with access to all kinds of information. And we hadn’t a clue.”

Until then, Bob and Suzanne were sailing along, a bonafide golden couple. He was vice chairman of GE and president, CEO and chair of NBC and NBC Universal from 1986 to 2007. (He remains a senior adviser to THL Capital, a director of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. and AMC Networks and a trustee of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.) She has long been involved in philanthropy, particularly involving children.

Then they were blindsided. Worse, there appeared to be little help – or hope. Sometimes, however, a daunting challenge can provide you with a life mission.  Even as NBC was closing on acquisition of Universal, Suzanne and Bob took to the road that summer – visiting hospitals, reaching out to parents of autistic children who were too depleted emotionally, physically and financially to organize on a large scale and ultimately meeting up with Home Depot co-founder/philanthropist Bernard Marcus.

“He was a big impetus,” Bob says. “He gave us the initial capital. And with that money we were able to merge with other parent groups.”

The result is Autism Speaks, a 9-year-old nonprofit that employs more than 200 worldwide and invests more than $500 million in its mission, the four pillars of which are science, advocacy, family services and awareness. (In addition, the organization’s advocacy has been instrumental in gaining another $2 billion in funding for autism research from the National Institutes of Health.)

The majority of the $500 million-plus investment also goes to medical and scientific research, including more than 700 cutting-edge projects, fellowships and initiatives. Among the most exciting of these is a partnership with Google to compute 10,000 or more whole genome mappings, Bob says. These mappings – to be offered through a portal next year – will enable scientists to see the spectrum of autism, for just as there are many different types of breast cancer that respond to various treatments, there are many kinds of autism.

The technological breakthrough has dovetailed with a social one. Suzanne and Bob wanted to get religious leaders involved – no easy task when many religions are decentralized. Being Roman Catholics, Suzanne says they decided to start with their own, highly centralized faith – a gambit that will bear fruit Nov. 20-22 when the Vatican presents a conference on autism. It’s as big a coup as getting the United Nations to proclaim World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) or lighting up the Empire State Building in the cause’s signature blue.

“It’s very important to have a religious leader talk to the faithful,” Bob says. “There are 1.8 billion Catholics.”

And the hope, Suzanne adds, is that the conversation started at the Vatican will radiate out to those who embrace other faiths and nonbelievers as well.

This is crucial, Bob says, because 1 in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, a number that could increase to 1 in 50 as diagnostic tools and awareness improve.

For their work, Suzanne and Bob have received many honors, including the Dean’s Medal of Honor for Global Leadership in Autism Research and Advocacy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Suzanne, a graduate and trustee emerita of Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, and Bob – a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Virginia School of Law – are the first married couple to receive an honorary degree from St. John’s University.

“We’ve been married for 47 years,” Suzanne says. “(Autism Speaks) is an extension of our partnership in marriage. Even though Bob was a CEO and did things wonderfully, I’ve always been an equal partner.”

Bob praises Suzanne for her drive, perseverance, creativity and, perhaps above all, an ability to see opportunity where others don’t. Their skills and roles are complementary.

“Think of it as a couple who owns a real-estate brokerage,” he says. “You’re not both going to be showing the same houses.”

So they balance each other but sometimes they do overlap.

With such important work, there’s little downtime. The couple, who are parents of three and grandparents of six, divide their time between Connecticut and Florida, where they golf and go out on their boat when they can. They haven’t lost sight of the inspiration for all this, though. Just before the interview, Suzanne visited with Christian, now 13. Though nonverbal, he makes eye contact and knows who his grandmother is.

“He’s a special boy and our daughter and her husband are brave young people,” Suzanne says.

As are Christian’s grandparents. As Bob puts it, “If not us, who?”

To find out more, visit autismspeaks.org.

Suzanne and Bob Wright remember exactly how they felt when they learned in March 2004 that their oldest grandson, Christian, had been diagnosed with autism – a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social and verbal skills as well as restricted and repetitive behavior that manifests itself by the time the child is 3. Ten years later, the anguish in the couple’s voices is still fresh.

“It was extremely difficult, and the deterioration was so fast,” Bob recalls. “This was a case of significant regression. It was extremely devastating.”

“It was shocking,” Suzanne adds. “And what made it particularly devastating was that here we were – Bob was head of NBC – with access to all kinds of information. And we hadn’t a clue.”

Until then, Bob and Suzanne were sailing along, a bonafide golden couple. He was vice chairman of GE and president, CEO and chair of NBC and NBC Universal from 1986 to 2007. (He remains a senior adviser to THL Capital, a director of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. and AMC Networks and a trustee of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.) She has long been involved in philanthropy, particularly involving children.

Then they were blindsided. Worse, there appeared to be little help – or hope. Sometimes, however, a daunting challenge can provide you with a life mission.  Even as NBC was closing on acquisition of Universal, Suzanne and Bob took to the road that summer – visiting hospitals, reaching out to parents of autistic children who were too depleted emotionally, physically and financially to organize on a large scale and ultimately meeting up with Home Depot co-founder/philanthropist Bernard Marcus.

“He was a big impetus,” Bob says. “He gave us the initial capital. And with that money we were able to merge with other parent groups.”

The result is Autism Speaks, a 9-year-old nonprofit that employs more than 200 worldwide and invests more than $500 million in its mission, the four pillars of which are science, advocacy, family services and awareness. (In addition, the organization’s advocacy has been instrumental in gaining another $2 billion in funding for autism research from the National Institutes of Health.)

The majority of the $500 million-plus investment also goes to medical and scientific research, including more than 700 cutting-edge projects, fellowships and initiatives. Among the most exciting of these is a partnership with Google to compute 10,000 or more whole genome mappings, Bob says. These mappings – to be offered through a portal next year – will enable scientists to see the spectrum of autism, for just as there are many different types of breast cancer that respond to various treatments, there are many kinds of autism.

The technological breakthrough has dovetailed with a social one. Suzanne and Bob wanted to get religious leaders involved – no easy task when many religions are decentralized. Being Roman Catholics, Suzanne says they decided to start with their own, highly centralized faith – a gambit that will bear fruit Nov. 20-22 when the Vatican presents a conference on autism. It’s as big a coup as getting the United Nations to proclaim World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) or lighting up the Empire State Building in the cause’s signature blue.

“It’s very important to have a religious leader talk to the faithful,” Bob says. “There are 1.8 billion Catholics.”

And the hope, Suzanne adds, is that the conversation started at the Vatican will radiate out to those who embrace other faiths and nonbelievers as well.

This is crucial, Bob says, because 1 in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, a number that could increase to 1 in 50 as diagnostic tools and awareness improve.

For their work, Suzanne and Bob have received many honors, including the Dean’s Medal of Honor for Global Leadership in Autism Research and Advocacy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Suzanne, a graduate and trustee emerita of Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, and Bob – a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Virginia School of Law – are the first married couple to receive an honorary degree from St. John’s University.

“We’ve been married for 47 years,” Suzanne says. “(Autism Speaks) is an extension of our partnership in marriage. Even though Bob was a CEO and did things wonderfully, I’ve always been an equal partner.”

Bob praises Suzanne for her drive, perseverance, creativity and, perhaps above all, an ability to see opportunity where others don’t. Their skills and roles are complementary.

“Think of it as a couple who owns a real-estate brokerage,” he says. “You’re not both going to be showing the same houses.”

So they balance each other but sometimes they do overlap.

With such important work, there’s little downtime. The couple, who are parents of three and grandparents of six, divide their time between Connecticut and Florida, where they golf and go out on their boat when they can. They haven’t lost sight of the inspiration for all this, though. Just before the interview, Suzanne visited with Christian, now 13. Though nonverbal, he makes eye contact and knows who his grandmother is.

“He’s a special boy and our daughter and her husband are brave young people,” Suzanne says.

As are Christian’s grandparents. As Bob puts it, “If not us, who?”

To find out more, visit autismspeaks.org.

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