The following is the commencement speech presented by Suzanne Wright, Co-founder of Autism Speaks, on May 15, 2007 at Long Island University's Westchester Graduate Campus
Thank you, Dr. Blake, for that lovely introduction.
I'd like to thank President Steinberg, the Chairman of the Board, Trustees, University Officers and Faculty, and Steve and Janet Stander for inviting me here tonight to share this special occasion with you.
I realize I am the only thing standing between you and the graduate degree you have worked so hard to earn. So I promise not to take too much of your time.
I want to tell you a little bit about a journey my husband Bob and I embarked upon just 2 years ago, because so many of you, who are graduating today with degrees in education, will encounter autism as part of your professional lives.
For the rest of you, whether your field of study is business, psychology, library science, or any other discipline, you too will encounter autism in your lives. It may be through a neighbor or colleague … it may be through a member of your family … but you will be touched by this disorder. Trust me, the numbers make it inevitable.
13 years ago, 1 in 10,000 children were being diagnosed with autism. 2 months ago it was 1 in 166 – 1 in 104 boys. Now, the Center for Disease Control has released new numbers. 1 in 150 children - 1 in 94 boys - born this year, will be diagnosed with autism.
When my grandson Christian was 2 years old, my family received the shocking news that he had regressive autism. He had a huge vocabulary and within 2 months, it was all gone. He lost his speech and his ability to communicate.
Here we were, me and my husband, the head of NBC Universal for over 20 years, and we knew nothing about this devastating disease that is gripping our nation. No one was talking about this epidemic.
Autism is the world's fastest-growing developmental disorder … it is a global health crisis … and it is only now beginning to capture the attention of our government officials and of the general public.
Christian's diagnosis meant the end of many of our dreams for our daughter Katie and her family … but it meant the beginning of our journey to find the cause, treatment, and cure of this puzzling and debilitating disorder.
Because even though autism is the most prevalent serious developmental disorder in the nation, autism research receives only 3/10ths of 1 percent of the National Institute of Health's annual 30 billion dollar budget!
And before we started Autism Speaks, autism research only received 15 million dollars from private funding, compared to pediatric AIDS, a terrible disease, but one that affects far fewer children and receives 395 million in private dollars.
How is this possible in the richest country in the world? We had to take on this challenge!
Our foundation, Autism Speaks, now has more than 135 full-time employees and thousands of volunteers around the nation and abroad. By the end of this year, we will have raised 100 million dollars.
We are a force in Washington, where we lobbied for the almost 1 billion dollar Combating Autism Act signed into law last December. Now, we are fighting for a 350 million dollar treatment and services bill, the Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act. We won't give up until we get the answers we need.
This is our crusade. Why do we do it? Because we asked ourselves: “If not us…then who?”
You will have many, many chances to make contributions of time and money to different worthy causes. In some cases, you, too, will have to ask the question: “If not me…then who?”
I hope each of you finds your own cause to crusade for.
At Autism Speaks, we know there are no simple answers to the challenge of autism. We need to raise awareness…we need to fund new scientific research …and we need to be advocates for children and adults with autism so that they receive the best treatment and therapies possible.
And this is where so many of you will play a role, particularly those of you who have made the decision to become professional educators. When you made that commitment, you dedicated yourself to helping children reach their full potential.
The wonderful thing about the education program at the Westchester Graduate Campus of Long Island University, is that the faculty and students here believe deeply that this applies to every child – including those with special needs…with learning disabilities…or with autism.
You believe that every single child you come in contact with deserves the help you are now trained and certified to provide. On behalf of all the needy children you will be working with in the years to come … I thank you and honor you for your commitment to children with disabilities.
It's a moral imperative … it's one that Long Island University embraces and exemplifies … and, of course, it is also an ideal that has been the law of the land since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975.
I am here tonight to encourage you and thank you on behalf of all the children, like my grandson Christian, who will benefit from your professional expertise and your belief in the philosophy of education behind the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I can't imagine where these children would be without this act and all of you to see it through. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I am also here, I think, as an example of someone who discovered – quite unexpectedly – that it is never too late to discover your life's work.
Three years ago, if you told me that I would today be helping to run the nation's largest autism advocacy organization, I wouldn't have believed you.
If you told me that I would spend every waking moment of my life working to raise money and awareness for a disorder that I had barely even heard of, I wouldn't have believed you.
If you told me that I would be traveling all over the world, to places like the small nation of Qatar in the Middle East, where I would meet with the First Ladies of 6 countries and win their commitment to helping Autism Speaks, I wouldn't have believed you.
Yet, this is now my life. If you ask me where I get the motivation … where I get the energy to keep up this pace … the answer is simple. There is a beautiful little boy in my family who has been kidnapped by autism … and we are going to get him back. There are millions of families around the world who have experienced the same heartache as we have … we are doing this for them too. We won't rest until we have found the answers we are seeking and until we have restored a lost generation of children to their families.
My passion for my work was born from a personal and family tragedy. But there are, of course, many other sources of passion: beauty, joy, and love, for example. I hope the passions in your life – both personal and professional – have these as their wellspring. And that you use your passions, your talents, and the skills and knowledge you have acquired during your time at Long Island University, to help make the world a better place.
The famous poet William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
I believe this is true for every child – even those who are challenged by autism or any other disability.
May your own fires be continually lit … and may you have the courage and wisdom and passion to be that special person who lights a fire in others. Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this special time, and much congratulations. Now come on up and get those degrees.