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A fight to understand autism

Mall family commits $1 million to aid CHM research

It was the love for a grandchild that put the Mall family on a journey that recently led them to make a $1 million gift commitment to help create a new program for autism research in MSU’s College of Human Medicine (CHM).

   Seven years ago, Tom Mall (’63, Economics) wanted to help his grandson Drew learn how to speak. So when Drew wanted to be picked up one day, Tom insisted that Drew say ‘grandpa’ first. Though he sees him often, Tom would not hear Drew say ‘grandpa’ again until a few weeks ago.

   Drew was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. Among the many puzzles that came with the diagnosis was the loss of the 20 or so words he had initially gained as a toddler.

   The Mall family, Tom together with his wife Cathy and their four children and their spouses, made their gift to create the MSU Endowment for Autism Research to advance research that may lead to new discoveries related to autism.

   “Our mission is to find a cause and a cure,” says Tom.

   Autism or autism spectrum disorders are complex, brain-based disorders that affect a person’s behavior as well as social and communication skills. There is no known single cause for autism, although the best available science points to important genetic components as well as environmental causes.

   “Because we have a grandson who has autism, we have learned so much about autism and its mystery,” says Cathy. “And the mystery has to be solved because we have a whole generation of children that are going to be unable to take care of themselves when they are grown.”

   The Malls’ generosity will enable the college to recruit a lead scientific investigator who will parlay the resources and partnerships of the college to shed new light on autism, particularly to explore how knowledge of the environment and the genetics of a child and family can help physicians to understand and intervene to help those affected.

   “I think the strongest signal that comes with a gift of this nature, a gift that is so generous and comes from a family, is that this is important. This is something that means something to the individuals who made the contribution,” says Dean Marsha Rappley, adding: “That’s a very strong signal to the people who do this research. The very best in the world want to be associated with people who really care about their work, who care about making a difference in the lives  of families with children.”

   The College of Human Medicine is uniquely positioned to have an impact on autism research. Researchers will be able to build on strong partnerships within MSU and the Grand Rapids area, tapping into such resources as the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the knowledge and technical capacity of the Van Andel Research Institute, and MSU’s nationally recognized centers  of excellence in neuroscience research, including neurodegenerative disorders and neurophysiology of the growing brain. Other assets MSU will bring to bear on the problem include CHM’s statewide partnership with 13 community hospitals and a national database housed at MSU with more than thirty years of information.

   Such breadth and cross-disciplinary collaboration is essential when dealing with a condition as  complex as autism, says Dean Rappley.

   The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that around one in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. This increase is  only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness, according to researchers.

   “Our gift is a good investment. It will help provide financial means to establish a long term research effort to tackle this problem. Michigan State University has the resources to get the job done. So let’s do it!” says Tom.

   The Malls previously gave to support the construction of the Secchia Center, the headquarters for the college in downtown Grand Rapids. Their current gift is a new starting point that will build an autism research program in the college. Both the Malls and the college hope to raise additional funds to meet a $10 million goal for the initiative.

    “We are certainly deeply grateful for their generosity and the magnitude of that generosity,” says Dean Marsha Rappley. “But, also we are very grateful for their leadership, for their willingness to talk to others about the importance of this work and helping others to see how they might participate as well.”

   Tom Mall founded Trendwell Energy Corporation, where he serves as CEO. The Mall family includes daughter Jodi Mitchell (’94, B.A., Communication Arts and Sciences, ’98, MSNE, Arts and Letters); daughter Angela Adams (’89, Business) who is vice president of Trendwell; and sons Scott Mall and Todd Mall who is president of Trendwell. The Mall Family Foundation was formed in 2007 to support a wide variety of education, community and health-related nonprofits.

   The Malls extend their appreciation to Steve Mulder of Mika, Meyers, Becket, and Jones PL and Brian Moore of Legacy Trust for their trusted professional advice which helped make this extraordinary gift possible.

For more information on making a gift tothe College of Human Medicine, contact Senior Director of Development Susan Lane at; (616)234 2614.


To learn more about the autism researchcampaign, go to