A decade ago, autism was a dirty word. Little was known about what caused the disorder and few were willing to come forward and share their stories. No one could have imagined that two grandparents from Fairfield would be the ones to change everything.
Bob and Suzanne Wright founded Autism Speaks in 2005 following the birth of an autistic grandchild. Autism Speaks is now the world’s leading autism advocacy organization, raising money for research and spreading awareness on not only the signs and symptoms of autism, but the unique talents of individuals affected by the disorder.
Rev. Charles Allen S.J., a personal friend of the Wrights, said, “[They] suddenly discovered what [their] cause in life should be.”
Autism is a neural development disorder that impairs an individual’s ability to socialize and communicate, often with devastating effects on family members.
Alexander Cucchi ‘15, a double major in English and economics, has a younger brother with autism. “Something that was difficult to understand as a … kid was why my younger brother was different or why he had to go through different things,” he said.
Fairfield has participated in “Light It Up Blue,” which commemorates The United Nations’ sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day, for the last two years by bathing Barone Campus Center in blue light on April 2. Fairfield also distributed bracelets and informational packets to students.
“Fairfield has a mission: service to others,” said Martha Milcarek, Assistant Vice President for Brand Management and Public Relations. As a Jesuit university, one of Fairfield’s core values is “a link from [Jesuit] heritage to real world issues of social justice so critical to the teachings of the Church,” as stated on Fairfield’s website.
For the Wright’s, “the main question was – what causes … autism?” Allen said. He also shared some insights into the Wright family’s story.
“The daughter, mother of the child with autism, wanted to believe it was because of vaccines.” According to Allen, Bob Wright did not agree with that theory and “this caused some friction in the family.”
According to NBC, a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no link between vaccinations and autism.
However, this information was not available to families like the Wrights. “The trouble was a lot of parents were saying ‘oh I’m not going to have my child vaccinated’ and … ‘that leads to a whole other set of problems’,” Allen said.
This, among other reasons, is why “education is really a huge part of this,” said Milcarek.
“I have witnessed a lot,” added Cucchi. “People from the outside just don’t understand. They don’t bother trying to understand. … I think it’s natural with anyone with a disability. It can be scary to some people.”
He continued, “But once you really get to know a kid with autism, or even an adult, it’s just a completely different world. [When] you can kind of perceive what they are perceiving it is just outstanding. There are so many more minor details, they have so many … special skills — little things that you never come to appreciate … and realize they are human beings too.”
The Wrights gave the commencement address at Fairfield’s 2011 graduation. At that time, Autism Speaks had raised $173 million.
Milcarek said students wishing to get more involved with Autism Speaks should contact the organization. They train students to be speakers and help organize fundraisers.