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PR Gives Autism a Voice

Posted At: April 21, 2010 2:15 PM
by Allison Cook

“One in 11,000 children will appear in a Broadway play. One in 110 will be diagnosed with autism.” The message of nonprofit research organization Autism Speaks is clear: autism is more common than we think. April is Autism Awareness Month, and it’s time for Americans to learn the signs.

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects almost 1.5 million children every year, according to the research organization Autism Speaks. Most commonly diagnosed in children around the age of 2, ASD affects one in every 110 children and one in 70 boys. The developmental disorder shows itself in a range of symptoms including delays in speech, social interaction and imaginative play. The cure for autism is unknown, and the causes are debated among specialists, families and scientists.

Autism Speaks aims to increase awareness of ASD, fund research for prevention of autism and support families living with the disorder. Founders Bob and Suzanne Wright started the organization in 2005 after their grandson was diagnosed with autism, and the organization has grown from a small group to the premiere research organization for autism.

“It’s a national epidemic that needs a national voice,” said Suzanne Wright in a public service announcement on the Autism Speaks YouTube channel.

Awareness is essential.

Public relations is imperative to Autism Speaks’ cause. Early intervention helps children prepare to enter kindergarten with their classmates and helps parents learn to cope with the hardships of the disorder. Because early intervention is key to treating children with autism, Americans must be aware.

“Awareness is our first step,” says Dana Marnane, national director of communications and marketing at Autism Speaks. “It then leads directly to involvement and donations to change the future.”

Autism Speaks uses social media, blogs, press releases, feature stories, public service announcements, special events, concerts, fundraising walks and more to raise awareness.

“Learn the Signs”

According to Marnane, the organization’s most successful public relations campaign came from a partnership with the Ad Council and PR firm BBDO New York. The “Learn the Signs” campaign features celebrities whose children have autism and scenarios that bring the reality of autism to the public. The campaign uses billboards, radio spots, public service announcements and print ads to raise awareness.

“Research shows that many parents of young children are generally unaware of autism,” said the Ad Council. “This campaign seeks to educate parents about the growing rate of autism in this country and to ultimately increase the level of early detection.”

Toni Braxton’s “Learn the Signs” ad compares the odds of a child growing up to sell millions of records to the odds a child will be diagnosed with autism. The results: one in 15 million will be as successful as Toni Braxton while one in 110 children will be diagnosed with autism.

Professional golfer Ernie Els, former NFL player Rodney Peete, the Jonas Brothers, Chace Crawford, Jordin Sparks, Fall Out Boy, Marishka Hargitay and other celebrities sponsor Autism Speaks ads to encourage parents to learn the signs of autism, increasing awareness nationwide.

According to Marnane, the campaign “continues to be our strongest campaign having garnered over $210 million in donated media and is credited with raising autism awareness 43 percent.”

Autism Speaks to the public

Although the “Learn the Signs” campaign remains the most popular campaign, Autism Speaks uses many other tools to raise autism awareness.

The Web site’s blog connects with families by providing the latest information on research and autism in the news. Some posts provide a support system with personal blogs from members of the organization struggling with autism to place a face and a voice with the disorder.

FacebookTwitter and YouTube raise awareness and generate discussion online every day. When Autism Speaks announced a new cartoon character involved in the awareness campaign on Facebook, the post boasted 800 “likes” within one hour. On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, Autism Speaks posted pictures of people wearing blue to show support, skyscrapers lighting their structures blue and autism in the news. The organization’s YouTube channel offers insight for families struggling with autism and for parents who want to learn the signs.

Walk Now for Autism, a fundraising walk, is one of the most successful tools for autism awareness. Volunteer-driven walks raise money across the country, and more than 80 walks are held every year.

Other PR initiatives for autism awareness include spots on national news stations, articles in magazines, celebrity endorsements on television shows and even apartnership for an episode of NBC’s new show Parenthood, where one family is struggling with their son’s diagnosis. Autism Speaks holds community events, galas and concerts to raise awareness. The most recent concert included performances by Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen. Rice Krispies boxes hit the shelves explaining the signs of autism, and Starbucks printed coffee cups with a message from Autism Speaks. Oprah dedicated an entire show to autism awareness, and the United Nations declared April 2 World Autism Awareness Day. Other initiatives include pushing legislation through Congress to prevent health insurance discrimination for children with autism.

Autism Speaks uses public relations to give autism a voice. The “Learn the Signs” campaign makes the likelihood of having a child with autism seem real. Without the Ad Council campaign, social media tools and other PR tactics, many parents could watch their children grow up with the developmental disorder and never know how or when to get help.

Learning the signs of autism is easy. offers resources for detecting the signs of autism. iPhone/iPod applications offer checklists of the signs of autism for parents who think their child may have ASD. If children show at least six of the signs, parents should take their children to a specialist to determine if their child has autism.

Do you know the signs of autism? Have you seen the “Learn the Signs” PSAs on television? How effective do you think the PSAs are in spreading autism awareness?

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