Most people, at some point in their lifetimes, will encounter someone with autism, be it a family member or acquaintance. Such is the idea behind Elon University’s Autism Speaks organization, a group of students who intend to raise awareness of autism on campus and in the local community and use their resources to help families and individuals facing autism.
“A big goal of our organization is volunteering and helping those kids in the community who we can impact,” said junior Britt Mills, co-president of Autism Speaks. “Another part of it is really spreading awareness on campus, because a lot of people still don’t know much about autism. People have these ideas of what it is that might not be completely correct.”
These misconceptions about autism were among the topics the organization has sought to address throughout the month of April, national Autism Awareness Month. Through events such as lighting the dome of Lindner blue, the color associated with autism, hosting a movie screening of “The Horse Boy” and selling T-shirts and shorts at an April 15 “Faceoff for Autism” lacrosse game, the club is working to attract the attention of students, faculty and staff at Elon.
April 25, the organization is sponsoring a panel discussion with three professionals who work with people with autism, including a music therapist, psychiatrist and behavioral intervention psychologist.
[box]Attend the panel discussion on careers related to autism When 4:15-5:30 p.m., Wed. April 25 Where McMichael 115 Who • Angie Hong, music therapist • Gladys Williams, psychiatrist, director of clinical psychology at UNC School of Medicine • Kathryn Dove, psychologist, director of the Meredith Autism Program[/box]
Kevin O’Mara, professor of management and adviser to Elon’s Autism Speaks, said one of the organization’s goals in having the panel is to inform students of career options related to their fields that involve working with people who have autism.
Mills, who became interested in helping people who have autism after being a camp counselor five years ago to a camper with autism, is a psychology major and plans to conduct autism research or work in a clinical therapy setting.
“I had no idea what (autism) was,” Mills said. “As I started to work with (the camper), I became aware of how much he was capable of. A lot of people judge you based on that title.”
Junior Melissa Provost, co-president of the organization, said her boyfriend, a triplet, has two brothers with autism. Her commitment to the cause has grown from her personal connection to autism.
“They can do so much, too,” Provost said. “People have this stigma that they think people with autism can’t do things. A lot of it is getting past that, but as a result, there are not a lot of resources and outlets for them.”
O’Mara, whose son has a form of autism, came up with the idea for an autism organization on campus after seeing a need for Elon students to be working with special needs students in the Alamance-Burlington School System.
“The idea was that our school systems are overrun with kids who have issues and teachers are stressed,” O’Mara said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so nice for teachers in the school system to have the opportunity to grab students from Elon who could help out in the classroom on a consistent basis — a group they can count on?’”
In the process of working with ABSS to establish a program, O’Mara said the organization hopes to start sending Elon students to local classrooms in the fall, specifically to work with special needs children.
Since the Autism Speaks chapter began at Elon last year, O’Mara said he has found several other faculty members in similar situations to his, learning how to find the best resources for their children with autism.
The organization is currently planning an event for October that would allow local parents of children with autism to meet with one another and professionals to talk about helpful resources for autism. After years of searching for and trying out programs for his own son, O’Mara said he hopes people who have learned from experience can share that knowledge with other families.
“Fifty percent of kids with autism never get a friend,” O’Mara said. “They’re often isolated, depending on how far up and down the spectrum they are. I thought it might be nice for them and their families to have these resources and a college kid to show up in their class to help them.”