Courtesy of Autism Speaks

Suzanne Wright
GETTING THE WORD OUT

When Suzanne Wright's 2-year-old grandson, Christian, began forgetting his potty training and losing words, pediatricians said nothing was wrong. After Christian was finally diagnosed with autism in 2004 and Wright began learning more about the disorder, "I was horrified," she says. "Nobody knew how to handle it. Nobody was talking about it."

So in 2005, Suzanne and her husband, Bob, then chairman of NBC, cofounded Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the disorder. Suzanne also shared her story with news pros at NBC, who were inspired to investigate and report on the problem. She lobbied Congress for support, culminating in the 2006 signing of the Combating Autism Act, which promises $920 million in federal funding for autism research and education over five years. Suzanne worked with the Ad Council to create a public awareness campaign. And in 2007, Autism Speaks raised $70 million and committed more than $30 million of that to scientists — making it the nation's top private funder of autism research.

Suzanne's most personal project, however, is helping families that are coping with the disorder. To that end, the Autism Speaks Website, autismspeaks.org, offers these families support tools and social networks; it also provides informative tool kits for schoolteachers and medical professionals.

Next up, Suzanne is taking her message even further. She was one of a group of women from around the globe who proposed a World Autism Awareness Day to the United Nations; the first one was held in April of 2008. "This epidemic is truly global," Suzanne says. "We need to talk about it and find out what's taking a whole generation of children into darkness."

For more information on Autism Speaks, visit autismspeaks.org.

Jason Kempin\Wireimage.com

Areva Martin
EMPOWERING NEEDY FAMILIES

I can handle this, thought Areva Martin when she learned that her 2-year-old, Marty, had autism. After all, she'd handled lots of challenges as a Los Angeles attorney representing Fortune 500 companies. "But it took months just to work through the maze of resources and information," says Areva. She saw the need for a support network in which parents could share experiences and learn to navigate the system together.

So in 2005, Areva created Special Needs Network (SNN). The organization helps empower poor families in Los Angeles who have a child with a developmental disability by bringing information and events into their communities. SNN also tackles cultural biases that persist in African-American and Latino communities. "Many of these individuals are ashamed about their children's disabilities, so they isolate themselves from mainstream organizations," says Areva. That's why she recruits role models whom members of these lower-income communities admire and trust (such as California congresswoman Diane Watson) to participate in the organization's events and share personal stories.

Since SNN's launch, the nonprofit has served over 10,000 families with events such as resource fairs (for information about available services) and parenting workshops (including one that covers managing a career while raising a disabled child). "The network gives these people hope," says Areva, "and it puts the needs of the underserved on the radar."

Find out more about Special Needs Network at specialneedsnetwork.net.